Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Cuppa Soup

My dad is a pretty lousy cook. But to his defense, he's always been surrounded by women that cook really well. I don't think he saw a need to get in the way. Dad's contribution to our meals was ordering boxes of individual combat rations for the German federal armed forces.

Stashed away in a cellar, he used them for his hunting and fishing excursions. He also ate them when, for some inexplicable reason, he was sick of a good home-cooked meal. My sisters and I always pilfered his boxes and didn't even care that we had to sneak down the steep steps into our scary dark cellar. We just loved the super hard cookies, jam and cheese out of toothpaste tubes and the dark chocolate.

Living by himself now, Dad does however have a few meals up his sleeve. For one, he can make a decent cup of coffee. He can also fry a mean trout by using tons of butter and then debone it expertly. And he can make a really good tomato soup. When he had an abundance of homegrown tomatoes one year, out of desperation he opened the only cookbook that was laying around. It was a book-of-the-month-club one from the sixties and had exactly one tomato soup recipe. As for the rest of his diet, he probably still has some of those rations.

Of course I snatched the tomato soup recipe, it's perfect with a grilled cheese sandwich; one of my favorite classic American combinations. The soup can be made with either fresh tomatoes or tomato paste. Funny as it might be, I actually prefer making it with the paste. Cooking the paste slowly in butter brings out a robust, deeply intense tomato flavor. Slowly sautéed onions offer a little sweetness, while lemon peel adds a bright note and some zest. Dotted with rice, the soup becomes a little more hefty. I sprinkle it with finely chopped chives or parsley for a nice contrast to the bright orangey-red, and eat it with a crunchy, creamy grilled cheese sandwich.

Beats the armed forces rations.

Tomato Soup
Adapted from “Das neue grosse Kochbuch”, Berteslmann Publishing ca. 1963
Serves 4

Just under 1/2 a small can (2.5 oz) or 1/2 tube of tomato paste
alternately, use 3/4 pounds of fresh, ripe tomatoes, chopped
2 tbs unsalted butter
1 small onion, finely diced
4 cups water
1/3 cup long grain white rice
piece of lemon peel
salt, pepper, sugar
parsley or chives

Let butter melt over medium heat and sautée onions for about 8 minutes, or until golden, don't let them get dark. Add tomato paste or fresh tomatoes and cook for a few minutes, stirring frequently. Pour water into pan and add lemon peel, bring to a simmer for about 10 minutes. Let cool, purée in blender and return to pan. Bring back to a simmer, add rice and cook for 20 minutes on low heat, stirring every once in a while so rice doesn't stick to bottom of pan. Season with salt, pepper and just a little sugar. Sprinkle with herbs and serve with a grilled cheese!

Saturday, January 3, 2015


Last week I went to my rowing club's holiday pot-luck party where I immediately got tipsy on a yummy cheese fondue. All I did was follow instructions to dunk the bread cubes into the Kirsch before I dipped them into the cheese! So it was good that I also found an impressive array of desserts. My friend Alex and I compared notes on our picks. He was telling me that while he definitely goes for the more gooey, runny, creamy ones, his wife Terri, who normally avoids gluten, splurges now and then on cakey sweets. They probably remind her most of the things she used to eat.

I've never even thought of the division in desserts in this way, but looking at my plate, I was thinking that I must definitely be the cakey type. It all started when I was a little girl. At the family Kaffeeklatsch, I never went for the pretty and fancy cakes, the involved ones, with soft layers and creamy fillings. If the dessert wasn't just plain cakey, then I just ate a ham sandwich.

I even feel the same way when it comes to French desserts. I admire all the beautiful creations in the Paris pâtisseries which look like little art pieces. I also love the fancy macaroons in every possible color. But in the end, they are all just too sweet, too soft and too sticky for me.

However there is something else in France, and that is a Madeleine. A tiny sponge cake in the shape of a scallop shell, it was supposedly invented by an eighteenth century French pastry chef named, surprise, Madeleine.
Although I've never read anything by Marcel Proust, I've heard that Madeleines will always be connected to his crazy long, 3000 page novel “In Search of Lost Time” where he dedicates several pages to this bite-sized cake.

A cute little Madeleine is golden brown on the shell side, and buttery yellow on the opposite. Pretty to look at, light and airy, it's not too sweet and perfectly well, cakey!

Orange Zested Madeleines
Makes about 1 1/2 dozens
adapted, with a few minor changes, from my cousin Carol's recipe

You do need a non-stick Madeleine mold pan

2 large eggs
1/3 cup sugar
2 tbs honey
1 tsp vanilla extract
Zest on orange
3/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp salt
4 tbs unsalted butter, melted
additional cold butter for mold

Beat eggs and sugar in a bowl for about 4 minutes until pale yellow and thick. Mix in honey, vanilla and orange zest. Sift flour, baking powder and salt into bowl, gently fold in the dry ingredients. Add the cooled and melted butter, gently folding into batter.

Press plastic wrap directly onto surface of batter and chill for at least 3 hours (can be made a day ahead).

Preheat oven to 400 degrees and position rack in center of the oven. Using your fingers, rub cold butter into each mold, making sure all the surfaces are covered. Drop one scant tablespoon into each buttered mold. Bake for about 10 minutes to a golden brown and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean.

Remove pan from oven, invert and quickly knock madeleines out of pan. Serve soon!

PS Cool mold completely before baking again

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Scuzza me

I knew when I bought my first shapely sweater from United Colors of Benetton that I was onto something; I was onto Italy. I adored everything Italian, and my younger sister and sidekick Sophie didn't have a choice but like it too. We even took an Italian class together where the teacher, according to Sophie, looked like an ice cream cone, very top-heavy that was. Nothing really stuck with us, except from that day on she has called me Sorella (which means sister in Italian), and she has probably forgotten my real name by now.

My boyfriend at the time suggested that we all visit the island of Elba. It was a long hot drive, and it involved an uncomfortable night in a small Ford Fiesta, since there was a ferry strike, but we saw the leaning tower of Pisa on the way and we were in Italy, yeah!

We camped out and spent our days sunbathing, swimming, drinking cappuccino and eating lots of pasta. We explored the charming island towns with sexy sounding names like Portoferraio, Capoliveri and Porto Azzuro and listened to Italian pop songs on the car radio singing along exuberantly. (I am not sure why Napoleon wanted to get away from here, we were perfectly happy!) In the evenings we drank plenty of Chianti, and while I stayed back with my rather boring boyfriend, Sophie rode off into the sunset with the waiter on his unmistakably-sounding Vespa.
Even the most basic pasta was exquisite. At lunch time at a tiny place right on the beach, we ordered the same thing every day: Spaghetti Napoli. It came to the table steaming hot, brightly colored and smelling heavenly aromatic. It was always served with a healthy pat of sweet vanilla-colored butter. Melted right into the simple tomato sauce, the butter made it rich, creamy and satisfying. Each time, the spaghetti was cooked perfectly al dente. We showered it with finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and twirled up the long strands with the help of a big spoon, grinning at each other across the table with crimson stained lips.

Napoli Pasta Sauce
inspired by Renée
Serves 4-6

6 ripe and fragrant tomatoes, 1 3/4 – 2 pounds
2 - 3 tb extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
5 large fresh basil leaves
Salt to taste

Bring a medium pot of water to boil. Drop in one tomato at a time, bubble for a minute and scoop out with a slotted spoon. Peel all the tomatoes, remove the core and chop into bite-size pieces. Gently heat the olive oil over medium heat and add the onions. Sauté for 10 minutes until translucent and soft, stir once in a while. Throw in the garlic for the last half minute until the mixture smells sweet and aromatic.

Add the chopped tomatoes with all the juices, season with salt and then add the whole basil leaves. Simmer for an hour or until the sauce is concentrated and fragrant. Adjust taste and blend, leaving it still a little chunky.

Serve over spaghetti with a knob of butter and plenty of parmesan cheese on the side.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Flat Whites

I have been a New Zealand fan for a long time, ever since I was a teenager dreaming about emigrating to far away places. I imagined outgoing people, the greenest pastures with many cuddly sheep, crystal clear lakes, incredible peaks, and an epic and mythological history. And that was way before the Lord of the Rings movies! When we were lucky enough to have our New Zealand friends ask us to join them on a trip, we didn't have to think twice.

I wasn't so far off with my daydream. On the South Island, we were immediately smitten by drop-dead gorgeous mountain ranges and fjords. I felt like I had stepped into a movie set and all the Kiwis were awfully nice. We moseyed on up with bikes, visited loads of charming wineries
and tried plenty of crisp and tasty Sauvignon Blanc. The men played on stunning golf courses, while my friend Catherine and I shopped for marvelously thin, non-itching wool sweaters.
When we got to the North Island, we stayed right above a fantastic black sand beach where we watched race horses being exercised in the wee hours of the morning. Our friends took us to their family beach house with a driveway so steep that I made them stop the car. I got out and happily walked through an extremely noisy rainforest admiring fat ferns, it felt a lot safer. Their darling cousins cooked us delicate whitebait fritters which we devoured with plenty of that easy to drink NZ wine.
Of course we ate lots of wonderful food. Lamb shoulder so tender it fell off the bone, briny green-lip mussels and delicate Pavlovas for dessert. I just drew the line when it came to Lamb's Fry! We had an ungodly amount of local bold and robust olive oil, and I was on a mission to drink lots of Flat Whites, a Kiwi coffee invention.

Here is my favorite official definition: “The flat white has less milk, less foam (hence flat white) and therefore proportionately more coffee than a latte. The desired texture is a velvety sensuality and there should also be a natural sweetness.” as quoted by Joseph Hoye from Electric Coffee Bean

I encountered lots of great "flatties", and I've already figured out that I need to go back. Meanwhile, I have a flat white whenever I can get my hands on one, and sometimes, I make this simple version of New Zealand's national dessert.

A very simplified “Pavlova”

Definitely a cop-out, but my friend Catherine tells me it's perfectly alright to take this shortcut; I even bought the meringue cookies. I happen to have a very good baker in the neighborhood, but the more ambitious approach would be to make home-made ones.

Makes 1 small serving

2-3 small meringue cookies
4 heaping tablespoons of unsweetened, stiffly whipped cream
¼ cup ripe strawberries or raspberries (other berries will work too)
1 Tb chopped dark chocolate
1 Tb toasted and chopped hazelnuts or almonds

Break cookies into bite size pieces. Mix berries, meringue and whipped cream carefully and fill into pretty dessert bowls. Sprinkle with chopped nuts and dark chocolate and eat immediately!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A snappy bunch

Candela Di Fuoco. Early Scarlet Short Top. Cherry Belle. Giant Luo Buo. Madras Podding. Chinese Red Meat. Pink Lady Slipper. Burpee White. I really like all these wacky names! Funnily enough, these are all names of heirloom radishes.

Radishes come in tidy little bouquets held together by rubber bands in almost fake-looking hues of red and purple with fuzzy green leaves, each radish a perfect doll-size root vegetable. I like seeing loads of them in the grocery store or piled high at the farmer's market, they always make me feel cheery.
There is something very satisfying when I bite into a radish: a bit of a crunch, a little sharp bite in the back of my throat perking up my mouth. It seems like the whole world eats radishes. The French dip them in slightly softened, creamy sweet butter and wash them down with a glass of crisp white wine. In Mexican cuisine, radishes make a peppery and crunchy topping to tacos and posole. The Germans munch them when drinking beer, sprinkling some salt on top, preferably with buttered dark bread scattered with chives, while the Japanese grate their radishes which are oftentimes part of a bento box.

Radishes can be dolled up and used as a very cute food décor, and the other day, I found a dish soap with radish scent ;)

Besides, they can be transformed into a fine little spring soup. I even use the leaves which give the potage a wonderfully aromatic tang. Once cooked, the radishes become less sharp, there is just a hint of it left, and the leaves give the soup a pale green shade, like spring itself. I add a little lemon juice for brightness and top it with a drizzle of pleasingly grassy olive oil.

Heirloom radishes come in all different shapes, sizes and names, but the best I saved for last: Rat's Tail.

Spring Radish Soup
Adapted from the German Magazine Brigitte
Serves 2 – 4
1 small bunch radishes, cleaned and coarsely chopped
A handful or about 10 green radish leaves, discard any yellow ones
1 shallot, diced
1 medium potato, peeled and cubed
1 Tb olive oil
1 cup milk, whole or 2 %
1 cup vegetable broth
1-2 tsp lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste

Sauté radishes, shallot and potato in olive oil for about 5 minutes or until fragrant. Add milk and vegetable broth, cover, and simmer on a low flame for 20 minutes. Add radish leaves and puree until pale green and frothy. Add more broth if soup seems too thick. Season with lemon juice, salt and freshly ground pepper. Serve with thin radish slices and a few drops of olive oil.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Bringing back canapés

I've always liked canapés. And I don't mean the dainty ones, I mean the rustic ones my mother used to serve at practically every occasion. She bought the freshest, softest French bread, spread slices with sweet butter and draped all kinds of savories on top, each with a tiny bit of garnishing. She always made piles of canapés, some with our butcher's delectable cold cuts and some with cheese. I didn't like cheese as a kid, but I happily gobbled up paper-thin fragrant black forest ham with a sliver of bread and butter pickle; mild salami with a sprig of parsley; and salmon butter with a slice of hard-boiled egg.

Even when I was still little, she often let me help her, and I eagerly mixed minced salmon with butter or made my favorite decoration, a look-alike magic mushroom. We were told that the real mushroom is poisonous, but now I know that, more likely, it is hallucinogenic, which might explain why it is considered a lucky charm in Germany. I carefully sliced off the bottom of a hard-boiled egg which then became the mushroom stem, topped it with a hollowed out tomato half and decorated the tomato cap with little dice of the egg I'd cut off to make the dots for the mushroom.

Canapé in French as well as in German also means sofa, and I read somewhere that the analogy comes from the edibles sitting on top of a piece of bread just like people sit on a sofa.

I, for one, have tired of serving cheese and crackers when I invite people over for wine and appetizers. Especially when most European friends smirk at it, thinking cheese can only be served at the end of a meal. Bored with the same old, same old hummus, or chips and salsa, I think I will bring the canapé back. Besides, they taste great with wine or beer.

Salmon Butter Canapé
enough for 6 large slices of a crusty French baguette

3 tablespoons softened, unsalted butter
3 tablespoons finely minced smoked salmon
lemon zest of 1/2 lemon
1 scallion or 1 teaspoon chives, finely chopped
salt if desired

In a small bowl, blend together butter and salmon with a fork until well combined. Stir in lemon zest and scallions or chives, mix well. Adjust seasoning if desired. Spread on French baguette. Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Midnight Soup

When my kooky older sister went to med school, she brought home many anecdotes and some interesting fellow students. My favorite recollection is still the one about her so-called dissecting skirt. When she took anatomy, she insisted on wearing the same skirt for months, because she claimed that it had taken on the strong whiff of the lab where they dissected cadavers. And she wasn't having any more of it when it came to her other precious clothes. Besides probing body parts, she threw a good party here and there, and her new friends sat around until the wee hours of the morning talking, drinking and eating.

When she was in a generous mood, she invited me to hang out with them, and I did once in a while but actually mostly because of the soup she always made. She called it midnight soup, but it really was just a doctored (ha!) up oxtail soup from a package. Even so, I liked the concept, it made me feel included and very grown up.

A midnight soup, or as we Germans call it “Mitternachtssuppe”, is traditionally served, as the name suggests, either very late at night or very early in the morning after lots of carousing, reviving everyone with a hearty, rich steaming bowl of soup.

My version of midnight soup has small cubes of lean meat and copious amounts of diced sweet onions. The meat gets browned on all sides and sizzles happily in a big pot. I season it with two kinds of paprika: sweet and half-sharp Hungarian which gives the soup a wonderful vibrant reddish-brown color and a deep, satisfying flavor. I also add earthy, peppery caraway seeds. It cooks for a long time in a tasty beef stock until the meat is very tender and the onions have transformed into a delicious velvety broth. The whole house smells intriguingly spicy-sweet for hours and most of the time, I can't wait until midnight.

Midnight Soup
Serves 4
1 lbs lean beef for stewing (preferable grass-fed)
2 onions, about 12 oz
1 clove garlic
2 tb canola oil, divided
1 tb tomato paste
1-2 tsp half spicy Hungarian paprika (depending on spiciness)
2 tb sweet Hungarian paprika
1/4 tsp ground caraway seeds (or 1/4 tsp whole seeds, finely chopped)
1/2 tsp dried marjoram leaves
1 Turkish bay leaf
800 ml beef broth (packaged or canned is fine)
1 red pepper
salt, pepper to taste

Step 1

Wash meat and dry with paper towels. Cut into small pieces, if already cubed for stewing, cut into 4 smaller pieces. Chop onions and garlic.

Step 2
Heat 1 tb oil in a big pot and brown meat on high heat on all sides for about 5 min. Remove meat and any liquid, set aside. Add 2nd tb of oil and sauté onions and garlic until soft, about 5 – 7 min. Add the tomato paste and cook for an additional 2 min to deepen flavor. Return meat with liquid to pot, sprinkle with paprika and add broth. Season with salt, pepper, caraway seeds, marjoram and bay leaf, let simmer for 1 1/2 hours or until meat is fork-tender.

Step 3
Meanwhile, wash red pepper and cut into cubes. Add to soup with 1/2 to 3/4 cup of water and simmer an additional 20 min or until desired doneness. Remove bay leaf and adjust seasoning. Serve with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of Gremolata (bright, finely chopped parsley mixed with freshly minced garlic and lemon zest).

This soup goes really well with a crusty baguette or sturdy German bread.