Sunday, 27 December 2015

Cooking: baked mac and cheese

I admit it:  I think mac and cheese, and almost all its variations, is one of the best comfort foods there are in this world... So versatile, so inviting, so soothing - I can go on and on and on as to its qualities.  Still, I'm not content with just my regular mac and cheese:  I'm always on the lookout for something new that will surprise and excite me... This is the latest in my mac and cheese adventures:

Baked mac and cheese
(inspired by Verbatim)

1 tablespoon butter
600g grated cheese (I used a gratin mix)
400g pasta, cooked al dente (I used penne)
1 tsp smoked paprika
salt/pepper to taste
1 cup milk
4 tbsp panko 
100g grated mozzarella

Preheat oven at 180 degrees C fan.  Grease a baking sheet (I used a swiss-roll baking sheet - it turned out so well, with no spills) with butter.  In a pot, combine pasta with cheese and condiments.  Spread in baking sheet and start sprinkling:  milk, mozzarella, panko.  Cook until bubbly and crispy, about 15 minutes.

(btw, in this post, Karen also deals with the issue of language in the comments section, and how words and tenses evolve over time - fascinating!)

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Cooking: cheeseburger soup

When it's cold out in the world, there is nothing better than a hot, steamy soup.  Unless it's a hearty, hot, steamy soup with plenty of ingredients to provide warmth and comfort...

Cheeseburger soup
(adapted from The Recipe Critic)

500g minced meat

¾ cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped carrots
1 cup diced celery

1 tsp dried basil
1 tsp dried parsley 
1 tsp smoked paprika

4 cups chicken broth
1 cup milk
1 kg diced potatoes (I used frozen)

200g processed cheese (I used Maredsous double cream)

salt/pepper to taste

grated cheese, to taste

I start with the chicken broth, which I make with the carcass of one chicken, which I boil together with celery, carrots and peppercorns - and plenty of water.  I reckon I start with 1.5l-2l, ending up with about 1 litre of stock.  I also use the (boiled) carrots from the stock into the soup (waste not, want not...).  At the same time, I brown the minced meat.

On to the soup:  Finely chop the onion, carrot and celery in a blender so that they end up like a paste.  In a huge pot, melt a bit of butter over medium heat and slightly brown the paste so that the aroma starts working.  Add the condiments and the minced meat. Once everything is warmed up again,  slowly add the broth, making sure that the temperature is maintained at a medium.  Add the potatoes (which I take out of the freezer so that they thaw a bit) and continue steering.  Add the processed cheese, leave everything to bubble away (for about 45 minutes).  Add the milk.

I did not need to thicken the soup, which I actually prefer.  That way, I can reheat the portions I want and I just add some grated cheese on top.  Bliss...

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Elizabeth is missing, by Emma Healey

On my latest visit to my favourite book-store, Cook & Book, I stumbled upon a number of books that grabbed my attention.  One of them was this one, Elizabeth is Missing, by Emma Healy, primarily because of its back-cover: how would a person with Alzheimer's disease cope with the enormous task of finding a missing person?

It's the author's début novel, and I was impressed for two reasons: I was almost immediately immersed into the protagonist's world and could thus have read it in one go (but I didn't), and because I felt totally at ease wandering between the past and the present...

Maud - what a lovely little woman... She goes on living her life without a care in the world, oblivious to the fact that she's buying too many peaches, that she's making too many cups of tea.

(Helen, the daughter) won't listen, won't take me seriously...I know what she's thinking, that I've lost my marbles... but it's not true. I forget things - I know that - but I'm not mad...

There's only one worry - she can't find her best friend, Elizabeth.  And she knows Elizabeth is missing, because she keeps little notes on her, indicating when she last saw her, when she last passed by Elizabeth's house, who she talked to about Elizabeth.

Almost from the beginning, there is a sense of determination from Maud's side of things.  She's determined to prove everyone wrong about Elizabeth not missing, as she is determined to prove that there's nothing wrong with her.

And while the latter will bring her in clash with her daughter as well as Elizabeth's son, the former will trigger back memories from a crime committed when Maud was young, creating a double-layer crime plot.

Healy does a wonderful job in describing Maud's world from Maud's own perspective - there's nothing pretentious, nothing "fake" in how Maud lives her life.  She jumps from past to present, from a time when she was little and her sister Sukey disappeared and her encounter with her sister's husband Frank back to the present, when she has to move in with her daughter and her encounter with her granddaughter. One single item can trigger this constant travel back and forth and Healy writes about this effortlessly.

The description of Maud's present state of mind and the things she goes through get at some point repetitive - as would be expected in a person with Alzheimer's - but this alternation with the past crime on her sister provides a twist in the plot and saves the day... (sometimes the past is even more interesting than the present).  The book manages thus to remain compelling and enjoyable to read.

After frantically looking for Elizabeth, after moving in with her daughter and perhaps coming to terms with the lack of ability to do things on her own, the end of the story for Maud is somewhat expected - but nonetheless brings the whole story to a proper ending.  No major drama, but a nice little story to read...

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Cooking: Thanksgiving

no doubt...

I spend Thanksgiving with American friends living in Brussels.  The idea is not so much the "official" celebration, but more a friendly get-together, where we enjoy good food and drink, with a great bunch of friendly faces around us.

Given the recent events in Paris and around (including Brussels), I feel this year was indeed the year when I felt grateful for all my friends and family, both near and afar, both those I see on an everyday  basis but also the ones I see less often: I know they are there beside me, either physically or in spirit.  I'm never alone in the world.  And for that, I'm ever so grateful!

Onto the festivities:  also customary is the tradition of potluck: the burden does not have to fall all on the hosts - especially when a large group of people is gathered, every little contribution makes up for a festive table indeed!

My task for this year - a green bean casserole:

Green Bean Casserole
(adapted from ifoodreal)

800g green beans, trimmed and cut into 3cm pieces
3 tbsp butter
3 tbsp flour
2 cups milk

1 cup water
3 tbsp cream cheese
1 tbsp olive oil
250g thinly sliced onions (I used frozen)
1/2 cup Panko breadcrumbs
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated 

3 tbsp water

Preheat oven at 180C (air).  Start with the beans:  Boil water in a huge pot, add beans, salt to taste.  Bring to boil again, then simmer for about 10 minutes.  Depending on how you like the beans, either increase or decrease time. (I like mine super cooked, hence the duration...). Drain and keep aside.

On to the topping: in a  large skillet, fry the onions over medium heat until golden (I had semi-thawed the onions in the meantime).  Set aside  in a bowl to allow them to cool down a bit.

Lastly, the sauce:  in that same skillet, over medium heat, add butter and flour and combine (like with any white sauce).  Add milk, water and cream cheese and whisk all together.  Add salt and pepper to taste and then add the green beans, stirring carefully.

Finish the topping: in the bowl with the onions, add breadcrumbs, cheese and water and mix until you get a steusel-type consistency.

In a baking dish (mine was 40*15cm), transfer the green beans and cover with the topping.  Cook for about 20 minutes. Try not to eat it all at once...

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Cooking: lasagna soup and frittata

My new go-to cure for insomnia: cooking! 

When I'm faced with a white night, instead of tossing and turning or watching TV, I've made a point to at least profit from the extra hours I'm awake - I will either knit/crochet/cross-stitch, or, as in this case cook.  At least this way, I will not have been up for nothing...

Pinterest came to my rescue, again:  I had already noted these two recipes and they were easy to make.  No noisy equipment to use (that would wake me up completely), or demanding work (which would not be ideal at my condition...):

Lasagna soup
(adapted from Afarmgirlsdabbles, to accomodate what was available in my fridge and pantry...)

2 tsp vegetable oil
1 Italian sausage, chopped
50g salami, finely chopped
1 cup onions, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1 tbsp tomato paste
350ml diced tomatoes (passata)
1 bay leaf
750ml vegetable stock
100g short square pasta (Quadrettini )
1 tbsp dried basil
salt / pepper to taste
Start with a big casserole: over medium heat, fry the sausage and salami in oil until almost through.  Add onions and mined cloves and continue. Once all have a nice brown/caramel colour, add  tomatoes/paste and the condiments.  Add then the stock and bring to boil.  Only then add the pasta, together with the basil and any salt/pepper.  Leave to carelessly simmer, about 20 minutes.  A truly comforting soup, ready to be enjoyed...

(adapted from Donna Hay)

100g chorizo, finely chopped

50g feta
1 medium tomato, chopped
1 cup spinach (I had mini-portions, frozen)      
4 eggs
125ml single cream       
40gr grated cheese (I had mozzarella at hand)

salt/pepper to taste

Preheat oven at 200C (air). I don't have oven-proof skillets, and that's why I fried the chorizo separately.  And I don't use any oil, because the minute it hits the skillet, the chorizo starts oozing this beautiful piment oil, which is sufficient and nothing gets burned.  But always check - other types may necessitate oil to start cooking...
Beat eggs with cream and salt/pepper.
Everything else is stacked in a dish:  at the bottom I place the chorizo, which I then top with spinach and crumbled feta. Top these with chopped tomato and pour egg mixture over everything.  Finish with grated cheese.  I left everything to cook for about 15 minutes, at which point the smell coming out of the oven was the most welcoming indication that I had overcome my insomnia and that I could now go back to bed...

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Invisible Love (Les deux messieurs de Bruxelles), by Eric Emmanuel Schmitt

One of the first authors I read in modern French literature, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt remains one of my favourite ones (La Part de l'autre remains one of the books that opened my eyes...).  While French can be slightly complicated when in literature mode, his books remain an easy yet fulfilling read, with content that proves there is still much literary talent in our present day.

In this book, Schmitt deals with the subject of love in modern times.  A series of short stories, Les deux messieurs de Bruxelles found its place in my reading stash primarily because of its title:  anything that deals with Brussels, I have to buy and examine and have my opinion of it heard...

All the stories provide a twist on the notion of "love" - Schmitt goes beyond the caricature and investigates whether any one type of love better/more important than the other is.  The result is an insight into the various facets of our lives, how we deal with this feeling of intense care and how this feeling can influence and change the rest of our lives.

The first story by the same title had the strongest impact on me. And it's good this way, because it kept me yearning for more.   The stark contrast between the committed homosexual couple who will never have a family and the heterosexual couple who will go on to marry, have a family and create a huge mess of it all - it's just not right.... 

The deep love between Jean and Laurent will not be accepted by society.  But that will just not do - instead, they will "crash" the wedding of Eddy and Genevieve and take their own vows just as the young couple is celebrated by all their friends and families.  This link between the two couples will continue for the rest of their lives and will be manifested in financial and moral support as well as something more... The end of the story is wholly unexpected, which makes it even better.  (I have to admit I felt a little better for the future of mankind after reading this story.)

As so go on the short stories about the love for a pet, the love for the wrong partner, the love for one's child... All stories that defy our long-standing traditions, stories that make us (at least me!) look to our lives in a different manner.  Stories that make a point to challenge our perceptions and to change our attitude towards misfortune.  

Schmitt remains a master of short stories (and not only).  His use of the written word is the best antidote to everyday deception, betrayal, submission, apathy.  Because love is a universal theme and, however hard we may try to escape it, it will find us.  And conquer us. Hopefully...

Friday, 13 November 2015

Cooking: lentil salad with veggies

I've been feeling rather under the weather this past week, and during such times, the one thing sure to bring back the smile in my face is cooking.  Comfort cooking, that is.

Add to that that I've been longing for such a lentil salad (yes, there are many of us out there who like lentils), plus a dish that can be savoured on the go and hey presto - this recipe popped up in my trusted Pinterest.

Lentil salad with veggies
(adapted from Kalyn's Kitchen)

1 cup green lentils
1 tbsp lemon juice (in my case, three lemon juice ice cubes)
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
3-4 tbsp olive oil (or to your taste)
1 cup finely cubed bell peppers (I used frozen mix)
200g chopped green olives
3 green onions, chopped
1/2 tsp.  smoked paprika
1 tbsp dried oregano
2 tbsp dried parsley

salt / pepper to taste

I started with the lentils, which I put to cook in water over a medium-low heat, to a ratio of 1 to 3.  (No salt added at this point, so that they don't go hard).  In the meantime, I used my multi to chop everything:  olives, green onions, bell peppers.  The reason was that I wanted them chopped as small as possible, so that everything is about the size of the lentils - this makes for a much better presentation...

Once the lentils are cooked, you could leave them to cool before adding them to the rest of the ingredients.  Or, like me, you could  start mixing the salad now, and make it a warm one: delicious!!!

Toss everything in a large bowl and make sure you taste at least some of it before inviting your friends over (big mistake...).  A friends- and family-approved recipe, which is to be repeated very soon!

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Cooking: Pie with leafy greens (Χορτόπιτα)

In general, I avoid eating fast food – but there are certain occasions when, well, you have other things to do/are on the go/are too tired and you just need fuel – now!
On one such instance, I was in sunny Greece, having just got off the plane and heading to a vacation spot by the sea.  Together with my sister we sat in a "snack bar" where I had an amazing souvlaki with pita and "everything" (meaning tzatziki, fries, and an idea of salad…).  Feeling slightly guilty, I tried to redeem myself by ordering a "chortopita", a pie with leafy greens (not just spinach) - that way, I could still say that I had vegetables ;-)
An epiphany – this pie was so delicious, I wanted more… and I actually wanted to make it home so that I could taste it again.  I find a spinach pie tends to be on the heavy side and most of the time there is plenty of feta cheese and/or cream.  This pie was light and aromatic and not fat at all – and I could actually eat the dough as well.
I set on to look for recipes on the web (thank you pinterest) and having found one, I proceeded to adapt it (as I always do…) – the end result more than pleased me and I'm happy to say I have since made it twice more to the delight of all those who taste it

Pie with leafy greens

500g spinach leaves, fresh
40g each parsley, aneth, fresh
3 leeks, white parts
1 tbsp dry sage
1 tbsp dry thyme
3 tbsp dry celery leaves
1/2 cup olive oil
100g feta cheese, crumbled

2*125g pie dough

A major change for me regarding the ingredients was their nature: I used fresh greens, and not frozen or dried.  While I would not do so for the rest of my cooking, I found that fresh really made a difference in this recipe.
Get the oven starting at 180 degrees C fan.
Wash the spinach (4 times is necessary IMHO) to get it squeaky clean. Wash the herbs and chop off any discoloured bits.  In both cases, you can choose whether you keep the stalks or not – I do, as they provide extra flavour and in any case everything will be chopped to bits… Make sure you get as much water out of all greens as possible, otherwise the pie could get soggy (I used my salad spinner for this job)
Chop everything in tiny bits – it took about 3 full loads of my kitchen robot to go through all the ingredients. Mix everything well with the oil, season and add the crumbled feta cheese if you are using it (I've made the pie both with and without the cheese, and I can't say I have a preference…)
As to the dough, I used store-bought here, but I'm finalising a recipe for home-made "peasant" pie dough – story developing…
Line a 30-cm deep baking dish with parchment paper or oil it well.  Lay one sheet of pie dough, dump the whole mix of greens and cover with the second sheet of dough.  Make tiny little holes on the top layer and bake for about 40'. Leave to cool and then simply enjoy!

Friday, 13 February 2015

I know why the caged bird sings, by Maya Angelou

This is probably one of the more difficult posts in this blog, and I did play with the idea of not writing about this book at all.  But, the use of this blog is primarily for putting down my personal thoughts and feelings about the books I read - and while I always express my own view on issues, I try to play the devil's advocate as well and try to see the other side of the matter.
With this in mind, I also would like to say how far I am from the state of things described in this book:  I'm caucasian, European, middle-class, pretty well educated, never having been excluded from anything because of any restriction, never having witnessed slavery, segregation, racism (although one might argue that nowadays we witness a new kind of racism all over the planet...).  In any case, I know why the caged bird sings had been on my list for quite some time and I looked forward to reading it:

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Stories to think about (Cuentos para pensar), by Jorge Bucay

I received this book as a birthday present, after having been astonished to see a whole display of this author's books inside a major bookstore.  I'm (almost) ashamed to say I had not heard his name before - as a result, I was curious to see what I could discover; the fact that he's a Gestalt psychotherapist only added fuel to my expectations!

In the back cover of Stories to think about, Bucay declares that his books "provide material for the brain, they help the reader to think about the world and himself". 

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Cooking: Alternative pizza recipes

What is pizza for me?  tomato sauce, mozzarella, pepperoni and a lovely carb "vessel" to carry off these delicacies...

But I don't want to have classic pizza all the time --  that's why I try to find recipes that still include my favourite ingredients and also bring the pleasure of eating pizza to a whole new level!

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The Classics Club: The Invisible Man, by H.G. Wells

I'm back in blogosphere after almost two years of an incredible slump in my reading habits (or any habits in fact, but that's another story...).  

I've started again - baby steps -  to read at a regular pace (at least half an hour in the mornings, when all is still quiet) and I am easing my way into the world of book challenges as well. It is for this reason that I wanted to commence my participation with something easy, with a taste of light reading.  

A classic novella fits this bill perfectly, I believe.  The Invisible Man, by H.G. Wells, is a well-known specimen and it will serve nicely as my first attempt in the 2015 challenges!

Friday, 16 January 2015

To rise again at a decent hour, by J. Ferris

Much as I like reading the classics, I also enjoy leaving my comfort zone and experiment with modern literature:  in most cases, I'm surprised either by how good or how bad it can be.  With this book, the jury is still out.  It's so different, I was grasped onto it, and read it voraciously...

In Joshua Ferris' To Rise again at a Decent Hour, we are introduced to the mind of Paul O'Rourke, a middle-aged grumpy dentist.  He's just fed up with everything, disappointed with everyone around him, dissatisfied with his own existence.  We are then invited to listen to his most intimate thoughts...

Friday, 9 January 2015

The Vicious Vet / The Murderous Marriage - Agatha Raisin mysteries, by M.C.Beaton

I came upon Agatha Raisin a while ago, when I needed some comfort reading.  So, when I was half-way through a difficult book for my bookclub (To rise again at a Decent Hour, comments to follow) I found myself at that same phase -- I was so perplexed that I needed some distraction.  Hence, not one but two comfort books, which I read in two days...

The plot of both books is, of course, a murder:  how else would Agatha Raisin keep busy when she's not trying to find love in the Cotswolds?  

In the Vicious VetAgatha finds herself with two kitties when a new vet arrives in town.  Pity that when she tries to charm him, she realises that half the village (women) the same idea has...
When the vet, Paul Bladen, is found dead, Agatha will need to pull all strings to find the murderer - together with James Lacey, her neighbour and love interest supreme who proves to be a challenge:

(Agatha) did not like people who suddenly quoted things at you, leaving you feeling unread and inadequate.  In fact, she thought they only did it to show off

The book is incredibly fast-paced, with hilarious moments keeping the interest high.  The "dark" moments are not overpowering and the end result is a pleasant read, ideal for a pick-me-up request.

The Murderous Marriage, on the other hand, is not, in my humble opinion, one of Agatha's better moments.  Already from the outset, the fact that on James' and Agatha's wedding date, we learn of the existence of her non-divorced, non-annuled, perfectly alive and well husband - who basically wrecks the whole ceremony - is a bit far-fetched.  Living in the same country, deserting the husband, and expecting to commit bigamy just like that... meh.  

And then he's dead. And then there's plenty of other people ending up dead.  Which is way too many, if I may say so myself.  For each one of these, Agatha and James  are primary suspects.  Again, too much of a good thing is not always better.  I kept rolling my eyes as to each new incident, where the police would call on the couple - because, of course they continue to live together.

And this is another issue I have trouble with.  Agatha and James have just had their marriage cancelled.  The emotions should be sky-high, and yet they react so rationally that I get upset on their behalf... 

(James): "I think I will always be too sore at you, Agatha, to ever want to marry you.  But the had fact is that we have worked well together in the past and together we might clear this up"

Also, already from the middle of the story, for the first time, I have my suspicions about the murderer and I'm right.  This is the final straw -- if I can guess whodunnit that early, I lose interest...

Monday, 5 January 2015

The Santa Klaus murder, by Mavis Doriel Hay

I picked up this book after reading a review by Margaret at BooksPlease, hailing it as an easy-going, holiday-appropriate piece of literature.  This is exactly what I needed, being in the middle of a difficult book (To Rise again at a Decent Hour, review to follow), which I've abandoned twice until now.  Holiday reads are meant to be relaxing and not much mind-engaging, but nevertheless attention-grabbing and entertaining!  With this in view,  I started reading The Santa Klaus murder by Mavis Doriel Hay (ok, perhaps it was also the title that triggered an interest ...)



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