Saturday, 29 October 2011

"There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so."

William Shakespeare, "Hamlet"

Thursday, 27 October 2011

On chickpeas

Talking about vegetarian alternatives to meat or other high-protein sources (such as cheese, tofu, or seitan) chickpeas (or garbanzo beans) are on top of our shopping list. Why? Because we consume them twice or three times a week and we are now completely addicted.

Be it for their delicate and slightly sweet and earthy flavour, or for their buttery  texture, everybody here at home has a flair for this bean. Just pick one of our 'can't-do-without' recipes and you'll find chickpeas (ceci, in italian) amongst the ingredients: 'pasta e ceci' or 'farinata' or 'panissa' (just to stick to the Italian cooking tradition), hummus dip or falafel (still mediterranean) and chana masala (going a bit farther East into Indian cooking).

Nutritional facts seem to encourage our insane consumption of chickpeas, as they are a helpful source of zinc and folate and they provide a high level of phosphorus and magnesium too.
They are also a good source of fibre, which helps to lower cholesterol and improve blood sugar levels. This makes them a great food especially for diabetics and insulin-resistant individuals. As I am likely to become one of those individuals (my father and other members of his family happened to be diabetics) I welcome the opportunity to prevent insulin related problems eating one of my favourite foods.

I wrote down a few notes on how to cook dried chickpeas and store them, both economizing and avoiding piling up useless tin cans or packaging stuff. It's just as easy as buying precooked beans, you just have to remember soaking them in advance, at least 12-24 hours. Cooking time is not short either, I acknowledge, but you can still pressure-cook them if you are in a hurry. You'll be surprised to discover how better they taste, compared to canned ones!


dried chickpeas (gorbanzo beans): 200 gr
fennel seeds: 1 teaspoon
or kombu seaweed: 1 stripe
sage: 4 leaves
or bayleaf: 2 leaves
sea salt: to taste

1-Soak the dried chickpeas in cool water for at least 12 - 24 hours, depending on the hardness and the age of the beans. After soaking time, rinse well and transfer the chickpeas to a colander to drain. Remove and discard any discoloured chickpeas.
2-Place the beans in a large saucepan and cover with plenty of fresh water (at least three times their volume). Add fennel seeds or a stripe of kombu to the saucepan to enhance their digestibility and prevent flatulence. Choose fennel seeds if you want to enhance the sweet flavour of chickpeas, or kombu for a more neutral taste. I also add garlic and sage (or bay leaf) to add flavour and get a tasty bouillon I'll reserve and use for other recipes.
3-Bring the water to boil then reduce the heat and simmer covered for between 90 minutes and 120 minutes (depending on the age of the chickpeas and soaking time) topping-up the water as needed.
4-When the chickpeas are about 80% done, season to taste with sea salt then continue cooking, uncovered, until the chickpeas are soft and almost all the liquid has evaporated away.
Pressure cooker chickpeas: Follow step 1 and 2. Bring the pressure cooker up to high pressure, then pressure cook the chickpeas for 40 minutes. Turn off the heat, and let the pressure come down naturally. Check a couple of chickpeas for doneness then season with sea salt to taste.

5-Drain the cooked chickpeas in a colander (reserve the cooking liquid in a glass jar as they make a great bouillon four soups!) and can the beans in a salt solution (brine) in sterilized glass jars. Store them in the fridge. Shelf life: one week approximately.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

"The opportunity that is concealed within every crisis does not manifest until all the facts of any given situation are acknowledged and fully accepted. As long as you deny them, as long as you try to escape from them or wish that things were different, the window of opportunity does not open up, and you remain trapped inside that situation, which will remain the same or deteriorate further."

Eckart Tolle, "The Power of Now"

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Home made grape schiacciata

Kneading the dough was one of my favourite kitchen activities when I was a child. 

I impatiently sat on a chair, observing my mother's simple and precise gestures as she mixed basic ingredients such as flour, water, oil and turned them into a smooth and elastic dough. 

Only then could I plunge my little hands in the bowl, witnessing the magic transformation that had occured. I liked kneading of course - squashing and pushing and folding and flattening the dough, but I always ended up making little holes in it with my tiny fingers. 

That's something every kid loves doing. Exploring with the senses. Touching. Taking time to feel and absorb every sensation that rises in the here and now.


I can't help watching my daughter as she performs the same actions I did as a child.  
Over and over again. Like a mantra, or a meditation. She gets quite absorbed, you know.

I usually leave an extra piece of dough for her to experiment with, and she loves the idea of preparing a treat for her dad, or for any guest who is visiting us. This time it was raisins schiacciata.

We usually bake rosemary or sage focaccia (or schiacciata, as they call it in Tuscany), thus Maddalena was very intrigued by the fact that this time I added sugar to the dough, which of course made her want to taste it immediately. She wanted to add raisins to the dough, and it came out as a good choice too!

As far as the treat I was baking, there's a just a few words I'd like to add. Grape Schiacciata is one of those italian regional recipes that celebrate the harvest time of the year. Grape vines are very common in most Italian regions but they are nowhere as famous as in Tuscany, where this recipe originally comes from. It requires a long preparation so it makes the perfect activity for a rainy and homely autumn afternoon. Choose sweet seedless grapes and a mild extra virgin olive oil to get the best results, and enjoy the juicy and soft consistency of the schiacciata once it's ready. It makes a perfect match with a glass of Italian moscato (a sweet white wine) or with a cup of herbal tea.

Ingredients (serves 8):

strong bread flour: 500 gr - 17,64 oz
caster sugar: 150 gr - 5,3 oz + 1 tablespoon for the first dough
filtered water: 200 ml - 6,8 fl oz +  5-6 tablespoons for the first dough
fresh yeast: 25 gr - 0,88 oz
seedless black grapes: 600 gr - 21,16 oz
extra virgin olive oil: 5 tablespoons
salt: one pinch

Prepare the first dough: dissolve the yeast in 5-6 tablespoons of warm (but not hot!) water mixed with a tablespoon of sugar. Allow to stand for at least 10 minutes. Add 4 tablespoons of flour to this mixture and mix well. Cover with a dishcloth and allow it to prove at room temperature for about 30 minutes. 

Once the first dough (or starter) has doubled its size you can pour the remaining flour in a big bowl and work in the dough, adding  200 ml of warm water gradually, a few tablespoons at a time, mixing and kneading. Knead the dough carefully in order to get a smooth and elastic dough. Add a few tablespoons of water if necessary. Make a ball out of the dough, make a cross on top of it with a knife. Sprinkle this second dough with flour, then set aside in a bowl. Cover with a dishcloth and allow it to rise at room temperature for at least one hour, until it has doubled in size.

Meanwhile wash the grapes, then place on a tablecloth or towel to dry and reserve until needed.

Once the second dough has doubled its volume, add 50 gr of sugar, one pinch of salt and 5 tablespoons of oil. Mix the ingredients well and knead energetically. Allow to prove for another hour. 

After an hour knead the dough again, then halve it. Flatten one piece of the dough on a wooden board dusted with some flour using your fingertips or a rolling pin.

Grease a baking pan (mine was 28 cm - 11 inches in diameter) with olive oil then cover the entire surface of the pan with the first layer of schiacciata . Drizzle half of the grapes on it, sprinkle with 50 gr of caster sugar then cover with the remaining dough flattening it and sealing the edges. Sprinkle with the remaining grapes and sugar.

Bake the schiacciata in a preheated oven (180°C - 356°F) for about 40 minutes then serve warm or cold, according to taste.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Silk Tofu with white grapes, ginger and pine nuts

This is a personal thank you note for Valérie Lhomme.
'Who's that girl?' you'll probably been asking yourselves.
Valérie is a talented recipe developer, food stylist and photographer, and I've been quite obsessed with her work lately. I like her innovative style, easy-to-do recipes and awesome pictures... just in case you want to know more about her you can click here, or visit here.

I'd love to share with you one of Mrs Lhomme recipe I've recently found in Marie Claire Idees- September 2010 issue, a magazine I bought almost one year ago and ended up on the library shelf, almost forgetten I have to confess, until a couple of days ago, when I came back from the super market carrying 4 lbs of grapes, trying to figure out how could I possibly consume those white and purple grapes before other members of the family came back home and sacked the fruit basket (we do love grapes, here).

Valérie contributed to this Marie Claire Idees issue with an article packed with excellent ideas: 'Grapes and Red Onions Tart', 'Caramelized Grapes with Sesam Seeds', 'Grapes, Pear, Apple and Raisin Crumble' and some other treats I will try out one day or the other.
The 'Silk Tofu with Grapes&Ginger' recipe was the one that really struck me, though. Probably because I love the ingredients, or because I haven't tought of such a combination yet, before stumbling into this recipe. Who knows?

The main ingredient of this starter dish is silk tofu, a japanese quality of tofu. It's consistency is softener than the regular one, with a creamy texture and a delicate flavour, which makes it perfect to cook vegan desserts (it can also be used as a yolk substitute in baking).
We usually eat it japanese style, with thin cucumber slices, wakame seaweed, sesame seeds and soy sauce, but I welcomed the idea of trying out a variation on this theme: Valerie's recipe really appealed to me, so I only added a nutty note to the plate, giving an extra bit of flavour, balancing the sweetness of apple and grapes, I guess.

So here is my own personal version, hope you'll relish this refreshing appetizer too!


silk tofu: 260 gr - 9 oz.
white grapes: 12
fresh ginger root: 2 cm - 0,80 inch.
apple: 1/2
pine nuts: 2 tablespoons - slightly roasted
soy sauce: 4 tablespoons
water + lemon juice

for garnish:

leeks or spring onion ring
marjoram or thyme leaves

Wash the raisins, split them in twos and deseed them. Reserve.
Peel and grate the ginger root. Mix it with the raisins in a small bowl.
Wash the 1/2 apple, remove central core and seeds. Thinly slice it and reserve (sprinkle with lemon juice to avoid oxidation). Cut the silk tofu into four parts and display each of them on an individual plate or in a small bowl. Distribute the grapes and ginger mix on the silk tofu, then add a couple of apple silces and some roasted pine nuts. Garnish with leeks or spring onion rings, marjoram or thyme leaves. Season with soy sauce, according to taste.

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