Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Crispy Polenta

Crispy polenta is crunchy on the outside and tender on the inside. Perfect on its own or served with topping like grilled eggplant or wilted greens. 

Everybody likes plain things.  Well, so says my younger daughter.  The other day I made some lovely cheesy polenta from this recipe here.  If you haven’t read the delightful Katherine from Eggton,  go a have look right now.  Her dishes always look delicious, she makes me laugh and she has the cutest dogs on the internet, well, right behind my own helper.

Dear husband and I declared the polenta delicious (I served it with a fresh garlicky tomato sauce and grilled eggplant.) but younger daughter thought the cheese was too cheesy.  I think we all know how I feel about cheese.   Growing up in Brazil, she was used to the small squares of polenta that were deep-fried and part of every churrascaria menu.  So just a couple of days later, I obliged, making my own version which still comes out crispy, but is pan-fried with a little olive oil, making it much healthier.  It met with approval.

1 cup or 170g polenta
1 vegetable (or chicken) stock cube
1/2 teaspoon sea salt (I used truffle salt I brought back from a trip to Italy but you couldn’t taste the tiny flecks of truffle at all so normal sea salt would be just fine.)
2 generous tablespoons butter
Olive oil for pan-frying

Find yourself a heat proof cylindrical vessel that will hold at least 2 1/2 cups or 600ml by volume.  Slide in a small bag like you get in the grocery store for vegetables or one of those bags on a roll that still use twist ties.  

Put three cups or 720ml of water into a large pot or saucepan.  Add in the stock cube and the salt.  Bring the water to a gentle boil and then add in the cup of polenta slowly, stirring constantly to prevent lumps from forming.

I started to stir quickly after taking this photo. Couldn't snap and stir and pour at the same time.  I need three hands!

Keep stirring and cooking over a low fire until the polenta grains are completely soft, the water has been absorbed and the mixture gets fairly firm but you can still stir it.  Remember that it will firm up even more as it cools. 

Add in the butter and give it a few more good stirs.  

Remove the pot from the heat and let it cool for a few minutes (because you don’t want to melt your plastic bag) and then carefully spoon the polenta into the plastic-bag-lined cylindrical container.  Fold the top of the bag over so the polenta on the end doesn’t dry out and to smooth the end out.

It's fairly flat on top, you just can't tell. I secured the bag down with a rubberband but forgot to take that photo. 

Allow to cool until stiff and then remove the bag of polenta from the container.  It will finish cooling faster with the just the bag around it.

When the polenta is completely cooled, slice it into circles about 1/3 inch or just under one centimeter thick.

You can cut that rough end off and just eat it. I did. 

I got 13 slices out of my cylinder.

Drizzle a little olive oil in a non-stick skillet and fry the polenta circles until crispy on both sides.  Add a little more olive oil as you turn them over the first time. 

As they cooked a little and shrunk up, I was able to slip in that last one that didn't fit initially in the pan.
Just keep flipping them over until they are nicely browned on both side.

Word of warning:  I fried up store bought polenta (you know, the kind that comes in the tube) just like this back in July, as part of a meal out at my sister’s lake house.  I made the mistake of leaving the crispy polenta visible and by the time we got around to eating, the tasty slices of pan-fried corn goodness were all gone.  Scarfed up - with my three young nephews among the guilty parties.  So I can attest to their appeal to children.  Hide the polenta until you are ready to serve.

I don’t know about you but I am always looking for a way to vary the starches I serve.  I get tired of potatoes/rice/pasta with the occasional couscous.  This polenta is a great addition to any meal.  I served these topped with smothered pork chops, but, as I said, they are also great plain.  And, you can be sure, that is just how younger daughter ate hers.


Monday, July 30, 2012

Honey Date Pine Nut Muffins #MuffinMonday

Honey Date Pine Nut Muffins are beautiful, with the most tender crumb inside and a lovely sticky muffin tops, even before the extra honey.

One of the best parts of living all over the world is being able to learn about and experience not only traditions and practices of other cultures and religions, but also to be introduced to the special foods that are an integral part of those traditions.  As I sat down to write this post, I started counting up the many countries I’ve lived in and, out of the 13, five have them have been Muslim majority nations.  So, while I am no expert in any way, I have come to know a little bit about their celebrations over the years. 

This ninth month on the Islamic calendar is the month of Ramadan during which Muslims observe a complete fast from food or drink (and other carnal activities like smoking or sexual intercourse) from sunrise to sunset.   The act of fasting is supposed to help the person focus on the spiritual, rather than the worldly things, and teach self-sacrifice and empathy for others.  While traditional dishes vary from country to country, one thing seems standard.  The fast is broken first by eating three dates and perhaps some water.  There is often yogurt or a yogurt drink to follow.  And then the feast, called iftar in this part of the world, truly begins and continues on into the night!

When I received the email with this week’s Muffin Monday recipe, I was delighted by the two main ingredients, pine nuts and honey because they are everywhere in the shops right now. Ramadan markets have sprung up all over with fruits and nuts and all manner of sweet treats. 

I knew these muffins would be perfect to send home with my lovely lady who helps me around the house a few days a week.  She is the sweetest person and we adore her.  Especially the Boxer dog, who greets her effusively every time she comes.  Bless her, she loves him back!  I decided to add chopped dates and ground pine nuts, and replace half of the milk with yogurt in the batter, in order to make these delightful muffins even more iftar friendly.  If that’s a thing.   I also added more sugar because folks here like things sweet.  

Honey Date Pine Nut Muffins

Perfect for Ramadan or anytime you need a treat that is not super sweet, these muffins go well with a cup of coffee or hot tea. This recipe has been adapted from this post at Caffeiiina which came originally from this recipe at Taste of Home.  

1 1/2 cups or 190g flour
1/2 cup or 60g pine nuts (plus 2 tablespoons for sprinkling before baking)
3/4 cup or 170g sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 egg
1/2 cup or 120ml milk
Scant 1/2 cup or 110g yogurt
1/4 cup or 60g butter, melted
1/4 cup or 60ml honey plus extra for drizzling on baked muffins
4 1/2 oz or 125g unpitted dates (I used 11 dates, if you are counting.)

Preheat the oven to 350°F or 180°C.  Grease or line your muffin tin with paper cups.

Grind your pine nuts in a food processor or blender.  Either way, you may have to keep shaking the machine so the grinding nuts fall back towards the blades.  They tend to blow up against the sides and out of the reach of the blades.  Grind them as finely as you can without making pine nut butter.

The ground pine nuts clump together but, not to worry!
We will mash the clumps when we mix this with the flour and sugar.

Using a sharp knife, cut the seeds out of the dates.  Chop them up into little pieces.  They stick together (and don’t bother trying to make them not, because you can’t and it doesn’t matter) so it’s hard to see how small they are getting but just keep after it for a few minutes until you feel the pieces are as small or smaller than, say, raisins.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, ground pine nuts, sugar, baking powder and salt.  Use a spoon to mash out all the soft pine nut lumps that are clinging together.

In a small bowl, beat together the egg, milk, yogurt, melted butter and honey.  

Add in the chopped dates to the liquid bowl.  Use your whisk to break up the sticky dates into their individual pieces.  

Pour the wet mixture into the dry ingredients and fold gently until just mixed through. 

Spoon into your prepared muffin tin and sprinkle the top of the batter with the extra pine nuts.

Bake for 20-25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean.

Remove from the pan and let them cool on a wire rack.

Once they have cooled for a few minutes but are still slightly warm, drizzle lightly with some honey.

And to all my Muslim friends, Ramadan Kareem!  Enjoy!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Cheater Curry Puffs

Weekends are funny things.  Until I moved to Abu Dhabi, back in 1987, to me weekends were undeniably Saturday and Sunday.  And Friday night was a great night to go out because you had two days of lounging around recovering before school or work began again on Monday.  I was surprised to learn that weekends were Thursday afternoon and all day Friday in the United Arab Emirates.  It’s not like I had led a sheltered life, and I had even lived in a Muslim majority nation before (Indonesia) but it had just never occurred to me that weekends might mean other days of the week to someone else around the world.   Years later, when I moved to Malaysia, I discovered that there many people also worked five and a half days a week, but their weekend was Saturday afternoon and Sunday.  Even my cleaning lady came in on Saturday mornings.  And she would bring me fried potato curry puffs.  With their tender flakey crust and spicy potato filling, boy, howdy, they were tasty!

After making and eating potato curry the other evening, the thought suddenly jumped into my head that what I had were not leftovers, but curry puff filling!  Rather than making pastry and frying them, I decided to use puff pastry squares and make them into little pillows of curry puff to bake.  This is hardly a recipe since it’s almost all method but here’s how I did it.   

Leftover curry – you could use beef or chicken but potato is my favorite for curry puffs
Small puff pastry squares - about 4 in or 10cm – one for every two to three tablespoons of leftover curry

Take your puff pastry squares out of the freezer and allow them time to thaw.  Preheat your oven to 400°F or 200°C.   Line a cookie tray with parchment paper. 

Cut the potatoes in your leftover curry into much smaller pieces.  This will make it easier to wrap the puff pastry around the filling.  (If you are using a meat curry, do the same to all the chunks in your curry.)

Dampen your countertop and stick a piece of cling film down.

Place one square of puff pastry on the cling film and, using a rolling pin, gently enlarge it by at least an inch or 2cm.

Place your filling in the center of the puff pastry.  

Fold the far corner over, creating a triangle.  Press the sides of the pastry together around the filling, making sure to get all the air out. 

Using a pastry brush, dampen the pastry with water.  Fold the two sides in, then fold the bottom up. 

Pinch the corners to help make sure you have good seals.  I also just like the way that looks.

Place the finished curry puffs on a plate, which has been covered with cling film.  (The cling film helps them not stick to the plate.)  Cover the curry puffs with a dampened towel or paper towels until they are all done or until you are ready to bake them.

Place the curry puffs on your prepared cookie sheet.  Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the pastry is golden and puffy. 

Don't worry if they aren't so pretty now.  It won't matter when they have baked!

Serve with fresh raita, if desired.  I make mine like this.  I added chopped tomatoes this time too though.  I took these as an appetizer to a dinner party so I didn't get a photo of the curry puffs on a small plate.  Imagine one puff, with a spoon or two of raita on the side.  Pretty and delicious. 

By the way, here in Egypt, folks work a five-day week but their weekend is Friday and Saturday.  Who knew?  What days are your weekend?