Bites & Starters

Ajvar

 

Ajvar is a traditional roasted red pepper sauce/ puree favored throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, with regional variations across Lebanon, Syria, the Balkans, Turkey, and the Middle East. Ajvar is served with grilled meats, fish, kabobs, mezze plates, or just slathered onto a warmed pita bread.

Ajvar is a simplified Muhammara (see Recipe here),either of which I like to keep on hand to jazz up those meals that beg for a flavor boost.

Ajvar is available in in Greek and Middle Eastern shops and online, through rarely found on supper market shelves. So why not prepare Ajvar at home. The ingredients are all readily available and the recipe that follows will walk you through the process. Preparing the peppers and eggplant may seem a bit tedious, but it is all well worth the effort I assure you. The slightly sweet and smoky aroma wafting throughout the kitchen will be enough to spur you onward with the tasks at hand.

Putting up a jar freshly made Ajvar is one of those cook’s moments, a raison d’etre if you will and, I have to say, what makes cookery  so compelling.

So, with that thought in mind let’s get cooking!

 

Ajvar

makes 1 quart

  • olive oil as needed
  • 4 ripe red bell peppers
  • 1 ripe red jalapeno chile
  • 1 medium eggplant
  • 5 large garlic cloves, skin on
  • 2 tablespoons unfiltered apple cider vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons sea salt + more to taste

 

Rub the bell peppers, jalapeno, eggplant, and garlic with olive oil and place on a large baking tray.

Place the tray of vegetables under the preheated broiler and broil until the skins on the peppers, jalapeno, and eggplant blister and are are charred in spots. Turn all the vegetables and continue broiling. Remove the garlic as soon as it is lightly colored and set aside.

Continue broiling the reaming vegetables until all sides are charred and blistered.

Transfer all the broiled vegetables to a large bowl and seal tightly with cling film and set aside to cool.

When the vegetables are cool enough to handle you are going to peel away the charred skins and discard them. As tempting as it may be, do not rinse the vegetables under the tap as you work. Doing so will only wash away the flavor you have created during the broiling process.

Likewise be sure to reserve all the juices from the roasting pan as well as the juices collected as you remove the seeds from the peppers, chile, and eggplant. All these flavorsome juices will be added back into Ajvar later.

Cut the bell peppers and jalapeno in half. Remove all the seeds and membranes and discard them. Tear the bell peppers into strips lengthwise and place them in the work bowl of a food processor along with the peeled eggplant.

In a small bowl combine the jalapeno, peeled garlic, salt, and vinegar and mash together with a wooden spoon to form a paste and set aside.

Begin pulsing the peppers and eggplant in the processor until the mixture looks like a coarse puree.

Stop the machine and spoon the garlic chile mixture on top of the red pepper puree and pulse until the mixture begins to smooth out.

Place a wide nonstick fry pan over medium low heat and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil. When the oil is hot add the Ajvar puree to the pan and stir for several minutes. Then add any reserved juices and stir them into the puree continue to simmer for 30 minutes, stirring from time to time to avoid any scorching.

Taste and add salt if needed.

Transfer the Ajvar to a sterilized jar and cool to room temperature. Add a thin layer of olive oil on top of the Ajvar and seal tightly with a lid and refrigerate.

The Ajvar will keep in the refrigerator for at least a month or more.

 

Serving

Serve as suggested as well as with j sandwiches, pasta, tacos or anything else that comes to mind.

Thai...americano Pesto

Thai…americano Pesto

 

I used to make some stellar Thai basil pesto variations when I was living in in Thailand. But Thai basil is hard to find here in the US unless you’re lucky enough to have an Asian grocery store near by.

By all means use Thai basil if it is available for the recipe that follows. There are two varieties to look for. Thai sweet basil has pointed bright green aromatic leaves with a hint of anise and an after note e of cinnamon. Thai holly basil leaves are a deep green or sometimes reddish purple leaves with an earthy peppery flavor. Both variegates are distinctly more assertive in flavor than broad leaf Italian basil.

If Thai basil is not available, just adapt and diversify, which is how this recipe evolved. The secret to Thai food’s popularity is a cleaver one. Most Thai dishes include all five elements of taste, those being salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami (savory) flavors in one dish which is pure genius. It’s no wonder why Thai food is so loved. With that concept in mind I used readily available broad leaf Italian basil along with some hot jalapenos from south of the border, some Thai fish sauce, lime juice, cashews (abundant in Thailand) and you end up with a Thai- americano pesto!

This is a pesto you will want to add to your repertoire. A dollop added to almost any savory dish will have it bursting with all the flavors of a Thai- americano mash up.

Pictured is Thai..americano Peato served on toasted bread strips atop a salad of baby arugula, pickled beets and hard cooked eggs, and shaved aged provolone cheese.

 

Thai…americano   Pesto                  Makes about 1 ½ cups

  • 3 cups fresh torn broad leaf Italian basil leaves, or Thai basil if available
  • 2 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 1 or 2 jalapeno chiles, seeded and diced
  • ½ cup chopped cashews
  • ¾ teaspoon sea salt + more to taste
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce +more to taste
  • ¼ teaspoon sugar
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • cold water as needed for thinning

Place the basil leaves, garlic, 3 tablespoons lime juice, jalapeno chiles, cashews, ¾ teaspoon of salt, fish sauce, and sugar in the work bowl of a food processor. Pulse until the ingredients are broken down into a coarse paste.

Scrape down the sides of the work bowl. Turn the machine on and pour the olive oil into the feed tube and continue to run the machine until all the oil is incorporated.

Stop the machine and taste the pesto and add additional salt and fish sauce to taste. If the pesto needs thinning, turn the machine on and add 1 tablespoon of cold water at a time until you reach the desired consistency.

Transfer the pesto to a nonreactive container, cover, and refrigerate.

Serving

The pesto can be served chilled or at room temperature with endless applications.

 

Listed are additional pesto recipes that I have posted over the years to to expand your pesto repertoire for freezing for later use during the winter months.

Fresh Sweet Italian Basil Pesto (see here)

Pesto alla Siciliana & Pesto Trapanese (see here)

Spinach Pesto with Pancetta (see here)

Pomegranate Glazed Pork Loin with Pistachio Pesto (see here)

Pesto Diverso (see here)

Shiso Pesto with Soba Noodles

 

Pesto making season has arrived!

Fresh basil varieties are abundant this time of year and what we cooks have been waiting for with unapologetic anticipation. Being able to stow away the essence of summer’s flavors into jars or bundled into the deep freeze is a task relished. Bringing some of the bright tastes of summer back to life  at the table during the long winter months is always warmly savored by one and all.

With that in mind I came home from the market with a bundle of Italian basil and, to my surprise, a bundle of Shiso . My immediate thought was a Shiso pesto!

Most of you are probably familiar with the delicate green shiso leaves garnishing sushi in Japanese restaurants. Shiso has a fresh light mint like flavor with just a hint of citrus and cinnamon. It is indeed the perfect compliment for sushi.

Shiso is the Japanese name for what we might otherwise know as perilla in the West. It is from the mint family and originates from the mountainous regions of China and India, but now cultivate worldwide. Perilla is used throughout Asia. The Japanese use shiso for pickling and coloring umeboshi plums and fermented eggplant.

There are many varieties of shiso with leaf colors ranging from pale green, a purplish red, or leaves that are green on top and red on the underside  which is what I found here in North Carolina. I do love the subtle flavor of the tender young green shiso leaves so I just had to get a large bundle of these green and red shiso leaves and see what I could do with them.

Making a Shiso pesto defers to the more subtle flavor notes of the shiso itself. What evolved was a deep purplish red pesto with notes of citrus, ginger, and mint to serve along with Japanese soba noodles. You can serve the soba noodles warm or cold along with some sauteed mushrooms. This is an ideal pairing for various mushrooms harvested during the fall months ahead.

For you pesto lovers I will be posting a  zesty Thai-Amereicano Pesto in my next post along with links to other pesto recipes I have posted over the years.

 

 

Shiso Pesto with Soba noodles and Sauteed Mushrooms

Serves 3  or  4

The sauteed mushrooms can be made in advance. See the recipe below.

  • 2 cups fully packed fresh shiso leaves, either green, reddish purple, or reddish purple & green
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled and minced
  • 1 tablespoon white miso
  • 1 tablespoon freshly grated (micro planed) ginger root
  • ½ cup walnut pieces
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons freshly squeezes lemon juice
  • 3 tablespoons neutral vegetable or light olive oil
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons cold water
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • pinch of white pepper
  • a bundle  or two of  Japanese soba noodles
  • toasted sesame seeds for garnish (recipe here)

 

If your shiso leaves are mature remove the central spine of the leaves and tear the leaves before proceeding.

Place the torn shiso leaves, garlic, miso, grated ginger, the walnuts, and 2 tablespoons of lemon juice in the work bowl of a food processor. Pulse until all the ingredients are broken down. Stop the motor and scrape down the sides of the work bowl.

With the motor running ad the oil in a slow steady stream through the feed tube until the ingredients form a thick paste like mixture.

Then begin adding one tablespoon of cold water at a time until the mixture is thinned out a bit and smoother. You will have to be the judge of how much water to add, but keep in mind the texture will firm up a bit when refrigerated.

Stop the motor and add the salt and pepper and pulse until incorporated. Stop the machine and taste the pesto. At this point adding the remaining lemon juice and seasoning with more salt and pepper  to taste. Then pulsing several times.

Transfer the pesto to a non reactive bowl, cover with cling film, and refrigerate while you prepare the soba noodles and the mushrooms.

Soba Noodles

Bring a generous pot of water to a boil. Do not salt the water.

While the water is coming to a boil, fill a bowl with very cold water and set aside.

Once the water is boiling add the soba noodles and, using tongs, continuously stir the noodles for about 6 minutes. You want the noodles to be al dente! 

Promptly transfer the noodles to a colander and drain . Then tip the noodles into the bowl of cold water. Using your hands give the noodles a gentle wash. This washing will remove most residual starch so the noodles will not stick together.

Tip the noodles into a colander and drain well. The soba noodles are now ready for serving at room temperature.

If you want to serve the noodles warm, place them in a strainer and immerse them into a simmering pot of water until warm. Then toss the noodles in the strainer and transfer the noodles to a serving bowl or individual serving bowls.

Spoon some shiso pesto on top of the noodles and garnish with toasted sesame seeds. 

Serve the remaining pesto in a small bowl along with the sauteed mushrooms and light soy sauce or ponzu sauce on the table.

Sauteed mushrooms

  • 1 pint of seasonal mushrooms; cremini, shiitake, or forest mushrooms
  • 1 plump shallot,  peeled and finely diced
  • 1 tablespoon light olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 3 tablespoons sake or white wine
  • sea salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste

Brush the mushrooms well to remove any soil. Snap off the stems and reserve for another use.
Slice the mushrooms thinly and set aside.

Place a saute pan on the stove over medium heat. When the pan is hot add the oil and then the shallots and saute for several minutes until they are translucent.

Add the sliced mushrooms and toss with the mushrooms. Continue doing this until the mushrooms start to release their juices. Then add the butter and continue sauteing until the juices are mostly evaporated. Add the sake and saute until the sake is mostly evaporated. Season with salt and pepper to taste and set aside to use later.

 

 

Blueberry Pound Cake

 

Finally, I am settling into a new kitchen and eager to get back to doing some cooking and baking again. Transitions are never easy, but relocating from Thailand to the US, was both unexpected and fraught with all the twists and turns one finds along the way on any journey. Gladly my pots and pans arrived here and are in place along with my kitchen table that survived its long journey from half way around the world and is again an island of calm where my thoughts about food, recipes, and cooking can simmer away.

Of course working with an unfamiliar oven for the first time can be… well…stressful. But by chance I was just reading a recipe for a blueberry bundt cake by Melissa Clark in the New York Times that I thought would be a sure fire test run for my oven. Melissa’s recipes are always foolproof, but making a bundt cake can be tricky and frustrating when trying to release the cake from the bundt pan. So instead, I chose to make a pound cake, which is easier and eccentrically the same batter used for a bundt cake. I have made a few minor adjustments as well.

 

All went splendidly. The oven performed accurately and the blubbery pound cake and blueberry glaze was as delicious as I knew it would be. This is a perfect recipe for all sorts of fresh fruits and berries this time of year.

I will be posting a lemon bundt cake recipe in the next week or so, which will delve into the does and don’ts and how to avoiding the pitfalls of unmolding a bundt cake.

                                   

                                                            So let’s get baking!

 

Fresh Blueberry Pound Cake with Blueberry Glaze 

Makes 1 loaf pan cake and a small round cake.

Needed: a loaf pan and small round baking dish.

Brush the interiors of the  baking pan and smaller baking dish with melted butter and then dust with granulated sugar.

Preheat the oven to 350 f / 180 c   Set the oven rack in the middle position.

 

For the cake:

2 cups fresh blueberries

3 ½ cups all purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature

1 ½ cups granulated sugar

4 eggs, lightly beaten

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1 teaspoon lemon zest

½ cup Greek yogurt

½ cup whole milk

 

For Blueberry glaze:

½ cup fresh blueberries

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

2 cups confectioners sugar

Rinse all the blueberries and set side to drain in a colander.

Combine the flour, baking powder, and baking soda in a bowl and set aside

Place the butter in a mixing bowl, or a stand mixer bowl, and beat on medium speed until the butter is fluffy. Then add the granulated sugar in three additions while continuing to mix until light and fluffy. Then add the eggs in three additions while continuing to mix until well incorporated and the batter is smooth.

Add the vanilla, grated nutmeg, and lemon zest and mix until incorporated.

Add the yogurt and mix on low speed until incorporated. Then add the milk and mix until the batter is smooth.

Spoon the batter into the prepared loaf pan and baking dish and place them in the oven.

Baking times are as follows. The small cake will take about 35 minutes to bake and larger loaf pan cake will take 50 to 60 minutes,

Test by inserting a toothpick into the center of the cakes and if the toothpick comes out clean with a few crumbs the cakes are done, As always keep an eye on your timing as you d not want the cakes to over bake which will make them dry.

When done remove the cakes from the oven ans set out to cool on a wire rack.

While the cakes are baking you can go ahead and make the blueberry glaze.

Place ½ cup blueberries in a small sauce pan and add the lemon juice. Place the pan over medium low heat and cook until the berries are bubbling away for about five minutes are so. Then, using a stiff silicone spatula, mash the berries into a paste. Then begin stirring in the confectioners sugar and continue stirring until most of the confectioners sugar is combined. You will be surprised how much sugar is absorbed. Ideally the glaze should be stiff but pourable. Store at room temperature for immediate use or cover and refrigerate the glaze for later use. Be sure to bring the glaze back to room temperature before using.

When the cakes are cool you can remove the cakes from their baking pans and serve with the blueberry glaze.

Serve slices of the pound cake at room temperature with the glaze poured over the slices of cake.

 

The cakes can be stored in the refrigerator, wrapped in cling film, for five days or they can be bagged and stored in the freezer for later use.

 

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