Turkish Lentil Soup – Version 1

There are some places on the planet that are havens for vegetarians, and Turkey – in spite of its sizzling kebabs, stews and shaved meats – is one of those places. Fresh vegetables, yoghurts, cheeses, pulses and grains form the basis of many great Turkish dishes, and perhaps one of the best known of these is Turkish lentil soup.

I ate lentil soup all over Turkey – the good and the bad – and had a particularly memorable one in Goreme, in the Cappadocia region. But perhaps the best version I have ever had was at the Restaurant Su, a Turkish restaurant in Montreal, during a recent trip. Pale, creamy and fragrant, it  was generously drizzled with paprika-infused butter and served with a juicy wedge of lemon, and I revelled in the delicious simplicity of a soup that transported me to a street-side bistro in Istanbul.

There are actually a number of different lentil soups in Turkey, and I had been making a version with tomato, bulgur and mint for a few years. But there was something light and delicate about the flavours of this simpler version – known as mercimek çorbasi – that I wanted to re-create. You can find a million recipes on the internet, and some strike me as rather bland, while others seem a bit to0 complex for what it should be. This recipe follows a pretty standard method, although I have added a few flavours that are common to most Turkish soups.

A couple of pointers on the ingredients. The soup is only as good as the ingredients you use. Sadly – for the strict vegetarians out there – I actually find the flavour more authentic when made with chicken stock over vegetable, but vegetable stock will suffice. (I use Pacific foods organic chicken stock in mine). Also, the mint must be dried in this one – do not use fresh mint leaves. Dried mint imparts a flavour that is very different from fresh mint. Finally, use a good quality paprika. I use Turkish paprika, but if you don’t have access to this, use a good quality Hungarian paprika. Whatever you do, do not use margarine or vegetable oil. Butter is essential for the drizzle at the end, and I find that butter used to fry the onions leaves a very delicious taste. But if you don’t want to use butter, substitute only olive oil. This soup goes so well with a crusty olive bread or a chunk of baguette to sop up the last drops in the bottom of your bowl. Enjoy it with feta cheese, fresh tomatoes and olives on the side for a full Turkish-style lunch.

Ingredients (serves 4-6)

Olive oil or butter

1 onion, diced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 medium potato, chopped (most recipes use more for that classic pale colour and creamy texture after blending, but I am trying to keep the carbs lower in mine)

1 carrot, peeled and chopped

1 tsp cumin seeds

1 tbsp tomato paste

1 cup red lentils, washed and picked over

1 litre chicken or vegetable stock

1/2 tbsp dried mint

1  lemon

For topping: 2 tbsp butter, 1 tsp paprika, 1 tsp dried mint, sumac (optional)

Instructions:

Heat butter (preferably) or olive oil in a large pot and then add onion and garlic and fry gently for 2 minutes. Add the cumin seeds, carrot and potato and continue to fry for another minute or two. Add the tomato paste and stir until it is coating the vegetables. Pour in the stock with the lentils and bring to a boil. When potato, lentils and carrots are soft, after about 20 minutes at a light boil, allow the soup to cool slightly and then puree it in batches using a blender. Return the soup to the pot and add mint and the juice of 1/4 – 1/2 lemon (start with less, and then taste and add until you are satisfied with the results). Just before serving, melt the butter for the topping and add the paprika and mint, swirling it around for a few seconds until blended. If it’s too thick to drizzle, add more butter or olive oil. Pour the soup into bowls and then drizzle with about a teaspoon of the butter-paprika mixture. Optionally, you can add some dried sumac or aleppo pepper on top, as well. Serve with a chunk of lemon and be transported to the Mediterranean!

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Spanish-Inspired Omelettes with Green Olives and Manchego Cheese

I love manchego cheese. Ever since we ordered a plate of hot manchego cheese drenched in olive oil on a patio in Seville, I have been in love with it. Manchego is made of sheep’s milk, but is relatively hard and sharp, so it’s good for people who are lactose intolerant. The down side of this is that sheep’s cheese has a higher fat content, so if you are watching your fat intake, you have to have some pretty amazing self-control – because once you taste it, there’s usually no going back. I used to have to go to St. Lawrence Market to buy a very expensive wedge of manchego, but it is finally starting to make its way into Canadian supermarkets at various stages of aging (and subsequent pricing). Obviously the more aged it is, the better (in my humble opinion) but I once paid $18 for a wedge of ten-year manchego from the market, and that’s just not a reasonable everyday expense.

Today I am going to share a simple omelette recipe that uses a small amount of manchego. For this omelette, I used a 3-year manchego (which, from what I understand, is a pretty “young” cheese), some good quality sweet paprika, and some brine-packed green olives.  Highland Farms sells various imported manchego cheeses at reasonable prices, and that’s the only real “exotic” ingredient required. Just make sure you don’t use olives from a can. Buy them fresh from the olive/antipasto counter, or buy Unico brand, which packs their olives in brine. The recipe serves two, but the omelettes could easily be cut into smaller wedges to serve 6 as a breakfast side.

Instructions: (for two omelettes) 

Olive oil

1/4 cup spanish (red) onion, finely diced

1 garlic clove, minced

1/2 red pepper, finely chopped

1 cup mushrooms, finely minced

pinch of oregano

pinch of rosemary

3 eggs

1/3 – 1/2 cup low-fat milk

6 brine-packed or fresh jumbo green olives, pitted and finely chopped

pepper to taste

30 grams grated manchego cheese

2 Tbsp parsley, minced

1/2 tsp paprika

 Heat a pan with a small amount of olive oil and fry the  onions, pepper and garlic for 1-2 minutes. Add the  mushrooms, oregano and rosemary and continue to cook  until mushroom is browned and tender. Remove all contents  to a plate and set aside. Meanwhile, crack eggs into a bowl and stir in the milk. Add the chopped olives and pepper – do not add salt because there is more than enough salt on the olives. Heat a medium sized non-stick pan and pour half of the egg mixture into the pan, swirling it rapidly to ensure it spreads evenly. Allow it to cook at low-medium heat about  3 minutes until most of the liquid in the mixture is cooked. Add half of the mushroom and pepper mixture to one half of the omelette, then top with half of the parsley, paprika and cheese. Fold the empty half of the omelette over the half with the vegetable mixture and allow to cook for 30 seconds; gently flip the omelette for another 30 seconds, then serve sprinkled with pepper, paprika and parsley (optional).

 

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Pumpkin Bran muffins with a Moroccan twist

We woke up to fall yesterday. Suddenly. After a month of warm, late summer days and gorgeous September skies, October arrived as though to say “alright, enough of this. It’s time to let go.” And let go we did – we had little choice. I was downtown last night, my feet aching as my toes were forced to scrunch up inside shoes for the first time, and I honestly wished I had wooly mitts and a scarf! With fall comes not only closed toed shoes, but a sad farewell to peaches and figs, to my local farmer’s market and my beautiful window boxes full of vines and flowers.

There are, of course, a few happy things about fall: crimson and orange leaves, deer encounters in the woods, pulling out my scarf collection, and of course, pumpkin – one of the greatest root vegetables on earth.

With the coming of fall, I have decided to hibernate indoors today to bake and cook.  Now, I always make muffins on Sunday morning: much like my Saturday pancakes, it has become a tradition in this house of two. But this week called for something different from the banana or blueberry-oat muffins I’ve been whipping up lately. It’s time – at last – for pumpkin.

These are very healthy and very low-fat muffins. There is no added oil or butter. What that means is that they wont last as long as muffins that are full of oil. If you can’t eat them all in two days, I suggest freezing them – otherwise they will dry out. I find that most muffin recipes call for at least 125 ml of oil or butter (that’s half a cup) and although it makes for a very moist muffin, it also makes for a very fattening muffin. I simply don’t use oil or butter at all. But you can feel free to adjust the recipe if you want some oil in there – simply replace part of the apple sauce with an equal amount of oil. In this concoction, I decided to get a bit adventurous and use Ras-el-Hanout. This is a Moroccan spice blend that I love – it’s made of anywhere from 8 -12 spices – and a friend of mine brought me back a huge supply from Marrakech that I need to eat my way through. I was very happy with the hint of savoury cumin and coriander mixed in with cumin, cloves, cardamom and allspice. But if you don’t have (or want) ras-el-hanout, pumpkin pie spice blends will work just as well. If you don’t have a pumpkin pie spice mix, simply use 1/2 tsp cinnamon, 1/8 tsp ground cloves, and 1/8 tsp allspice. I also used Splenda brown sugar – mainly because my husband does not like sugary-sweet things. If you want to use Splenda, use a scant 1/4 cup instead of 1/3 cup. If you are using regular brown sugar, you can increase to 1/2 cups for a sweeter muffin.

Ingredients (for 12 muffins)

(Preheat oven to 375 degrees)

1/2 cup whole wheat flour (or whole spelt – as I used)

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup wheat bran

1/3 cup brown sugar

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp baking powder

3/4 tsp Ras-el-Hanout (or pumpkin pie spice)

1 cup pumpkin puree (canned or fresh – make sure it is not already spiced if you are using a canned puree)

1/3 cup milk

1 egg white + 1 egg (or use two eggs)

1/2 cup apple sauce

6-8 pitted dates, chopped finely (optional)

2 tbsp hulled pumpkin seeds/pepitas (optional)

Instructions:

In a large bowl, mix the flours, bran, sugar, spice, baking soda and baking powder. Blend well using a fork or a whisk. In a separate bowl, stir the pumpkin, milk, apple sauce, egg whites and egg until blended. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix well with a fork. Stir in the chopped dates and pumpkin seeds (if using) and then scoop 1/4 cup of batter into each muffin cup. Bake for approximately 20 – 25 minutes and allow to cool for five minutes. Remember to freeze the muffins if you are not eating them within two days.

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Back-to-School Gazpacho

When I was a kid, my mom and dad made some really delicious gazpacho using the huge beefsteak-tomatoes-on-steriods that used to come out of the garden. Unfortunately, when I was a kid, I thought the whole idea of a cold, pureed tomato soup was “eewww” and so I never ate it. In my mind, it seemed to be one of those things  – like Dad’s tomato juice and liverwurst – that were meant for Dad (and Dad only). How I deprived myself!

As an adult, I began to enjoy my mom’s gazpacho recipe. She told me she learned to make it when they came home from Spain in the 70s. I can relate, because when I came home from Spain in 2007, I too, was craving it. There isn’t much for an almost-vegetarian to eat in Spain – most dishes come with hidden or not-so-hidden morsels of pork, sausage or beef. But I managed to make it by, eating my way through Andalusia’s wide assortment of icy-cold, garlicky gazpacho, and goat’s cheese drizzled with sharp olive oil and served with crusty bread (and not to mention a large pitcher of sangria on most evenings). It was tough – but someone’s got to do it.

This is my personal gazpacho concoction. There is not much to it that is original – gazpacho itself is not a particularly difficult or intricate recipe. The only thing I have done in this recipe is to add red pepper and paprika for colour, and eliminate the soaked bread in order to reduce the calorie-count. I call it ‘back-to-school’ gazpacho because that’s when I make it: right before I go back to school. It freezes very well, and makes a perfect lunch because all you need to do is pull it from the freezer before leaving to work, and it’s perfectly thawed (but still chilled) by the time lunch comes around. The best part? It’s only 1 point on weight watchers – which means I can enjoy it with a big plate of raw veggies, some manchego or goat’s cheese and some lavosh bread…and still have room for chocolate!

Back-to-School Gazpacho

(serves 6)

4-5 very large, ripe tomatoes, skin removed

1/2 cucumber (or two mini cucumbers), peeled and  chopped
(I don’t peel mine because there is a lot of fibre in the skin, but most people prefer to peel it)

1 green pepper, chopped

1 large red pepper,  chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 tsp paprika (optional)

pinch of salt

2 tbsp red wine vinegar

1 1/2 tbsp cold water

6-8 drops of Tabasco (although this time, I used Grace Caribbean hot sauce)

pinch of sugar (optional)

1 tbsp high quality olive oil (when you use a strong, flavourful olive oil, you don’t need as much of it)

Directions:

Skin tomatoes by making a shallow slit in the skin and dropping into a pot of lightly boiling water for 30 seconds. Remove with a slotted spoon and run under cold water; the skins should slide off. Chop the tomatoes on a plate to reserve the juices and seeds. Add them to a blender with all the other ingredients, puree, and chill for a few hours to allow the flavours to set in. Taste it before you chill it, and add ingredients to your likng. You can serve it garnished with chopped peppers and cucumbers, and a liberal dusting of pepper – if you are not freezing it.

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Vietnamese Jungle Curry

Vietnamese Jungle Curry with rice noodles

Well, I’m home from a month abroad, and although the title of this post might suggest I was in Vietnam, I wasn’t (try Russia and the Ukraine instead). I ate my way through a mountain’s worth of varenyky and a sea of borscht (not to mention a heck of a lot of sour cream, cottage cheese and chicken kiev), so you would think that I would do a blog post on how to make varenyky. Maybe one day. As for now, I don’t even want to look at another varenyky. I came home craving green. Anything green. Anything with iron and fibre and other good things. In short: vegetables.

I am engrossed in a novel called “The Beauty of Humanity Movement” and its set in Vietnam. One of its main characters is an old man who makes the best pho in Hanoi. Every time I pick it up, I find myself craving pho – which is a bit disturbing, considering I do not eat pork or beef. So, to satiate my desire for something Vietnamese, I decided to try this recipe which has always piqued my curiosity. Jungle curry is completely vegetarian and – apparently – cooked to perfection by Buddhist monks in south Vietnam. It’s also apparently more popular as a breakfast food (then again, so is Pho) but I’ll stick to my muesli and yoghurt in the morning.

The recipe comes from a cookbook I picked up in a bargain bin at Home Sense called “Low Fat Thai Cooking.” It uses snake beans – also known as long beans – which are widely available in Asian grocery stores, as well as No Frills or FreshCo (but the ones I saw at FreshCo looked nowhere near as fresh and green as the ones I got from Big Land Farms). I have always been curious to try cooking with snake beans, so this provided an excuse. The recipe, as a whole, is pretty straightforward, and apart from galangal and lemongrass, it doesn’t call for anything too out-of-the-ordinary. (Galangal is a rhizome similar to ginger – it even looks similar – and you can buy it at an Asian grocery. They say you can substitute ginger in a pinch, but I don’t think the flavour of ginger is ideal). I made a number of alterations to the recipe in order to make it even lower fat and I was very happy with the results. It’s a great vegan and gluten free meal – but be warned, it is hot!

Recipe (serves 4)

Peanut oil (or vegetable oil)

1 large onion, sliced into thin wedges

2 lemongrass stalks, cut in half lengthways and bruised (the book said to chop them, but I don’t like eating lemongrass – it’s really tough – so I leave it in tact in order to pull it out after cooking)

3 Thai (bird) chilies, seeded and chopped finely

1 inch of galangal, peeled and grated

3 carrots, halved lengthways and then sliced

250 grams of snake beans – or the equivalent of a generous handful

8 Chinese leek hearts, cut into match stick sizes (optional)

grated rind of 1 lime

2 tsp soy sauce

1 tbsp rice vinegar

1 tsp black pepper, ground

1 tbsp muscovado sugar (or brown sugar)

2 tsp ground turmeric

4 ounces of sliced bamboo shoots (canned is fine)

6-8 baby bok choy, touch part of stems cut off

1/2 cup light coconut milk

1 tbsp chopped fresh mint

1 tbsp chopped cilantro

Instructions:

Heat the peanut oil and then stir in the onions, lemongrass, chilies and galangal and toss until the onion is brown. Add the carrots, leek hearts and snake beans and lime rind and stir-fry for a few more minutes, and then add the soy sauce and vinegar, stirring to combine. Add the pepper, sugar and turmeric, then the bamboo. Stir in the coconut milk and simmer about 10 minutes, until the carrots and snake beans are tender. In the last 2 minutes, add the bok choy and continue to toss until the leaves are wilted and tender. Season with salt, and then stir in the mint and cilantro leaves. Serve the curry over rice noodles or rice.

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Thai Salad rolls with tofu

I rarely go out for Thai food – not because I don’t like it, but because if I am going out for a meal, I tend to choose a type of cuisine that I can’t replicate – like Indian. But when I do go for Thai, it’s usually because I am looking for something healthy and low fat – and although many Thai dishes are full of oil, there are enough healthy options on a  menu. But one thing I almost never order is a salad roll. Why? Because they are SO easy to make at home, by yourself. As a general rule, I don’t order anything that I can make myself.

I am not a Thai expert. I have never been to Thailand. I have never tasted the food – unadulterated as it should be – in the mother country. Who knows if the thousands of Thai restaurants that speckle this city are even close to the real thing? I offer that as a disclaimer, because I simply don’t know how authentic my salad roll recipe that follows really is. But what I do know is that it is a) healthy, and b) easy. Once you get the hang of rolling them, you’re all set.

Salad Rolls:

(makes 8 rolls)

8 rice wrappers (round)

6 oz of extra firm tofu

1 tbsp peanut oil

1 tsp sesame oil

1 tbsp rice flour (could probably substitute corn flour or even white flour, but I have never tried it)

pinch of salt

1 tbsp sesame seeds (optional)

1/4 package of thin rice vermicelli (I used brown rice vermicelli, but it doesn’t matter)

16 large mint leaves (fresh)

8 leaves of romaine or boston leaf lettuce

2 large carrots, julienned

2 mini cucumbers, julienned

1/4 cup of partially crushed cashews

For the sauce (Vietnamese nuoc cham)

1 tbsp fish sauce

1/3 cup water

juice from half a lime

2 tbsp muscovado or brown sugar

1/4 tsp chilli flakes

 

Instructions: Press excess water out of the tofu by covering it with a thick paper towel or cheese cloth and laying a heavy book or pan on top. Slice the tofu into thin, half centimetre lengths. Heat both oils in a shallow pan; meanwhile, mix the flour, salt and sesame seeds (optional) on a plate and dredge each tofu slice in the flour until it is lightly coated. Place each tofu slice in the heated pan and allow about 5 minutes per side, or until each tofu is slightly crispy. Remove the slices and drain them on a paper towel.

Next, pour boiling water over the vermicelli noodles and allow to stand about 5 minutes before draining and rinsing in cold water. Fill a pan with lukewarm water and spread a clean dishtowel over your work surface. Soak on sheet of rice wrappers in the pan for about 3-5 minutes, until totally soft. Gently remove it and spread it on the dish towel, and place the next sheet to soak while you work on the previous one. Begin by laying the lettuce leaves near the bottom of the circle. Add a portion of the carrots and cucumber. Next, take the vermicelli and fold a bunch of noodles into 10 cm lengths; put these on top of the pile. Add a slice of tofu (you might need to use one and a half to match the length of the other ingredients). Lay two mint leaves, end-to-end, on top and then sprinkle some of the cashews.

Rolling 'em up

To fold the rice rolls, simply pull the bottom up gently (but taut) over the salad mix, then fold in the two sides. After that, roll to the top keeping it tight but being careful not to tear the rice paper. Place finished roll on a plate and repeat until they are all finished. It sounds complicated but it isn’t. I think the biggest mistake people make with salad rolls is boiling the rice wrappers, instead of soaking them in luke warm water. When you boil them, they get torn or flimsy and they tear easily. It is not necessary to boil them.

Mix up the ingredients for the nuoc cham (sauce) or use a store-bought Thai dipping sauce, and enjoy your healthy salad rolls!

 

 

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White chocolate and strawberry cupcakes for mom

Going to Highland Farms is one of the highlights of my week (I know, I need to get out more…) I honestly don’t know if I could move to another part of the country or even the world, because I would be too far from Highland Farms. I love it because if a food exists somewhere in the world, it also exists at Highland Farms (with a few exceptions – they don’t carry yak butter or dried donkey penis).  But the other thing I love about it is that they seem to have more and better local produce than anywhere else. If they can buy it locally, they do. So, June 9 – imagine my glee when I found the first of Ontario’s strawberry crop out in those distinctive green baskets; beautiful, plump, and deep red, they made the plastic boxes of half-ripened Florida strawberries look inedible.

I had decided that I would make a cake for mom’s birthday this year, in spite of the fact that my report cards are due on Monday. My original intent was to try to emulate a white chocolate raspberry cake that she used to love from Longo’s years ago. Seeing the fresh strawberries at Highland Farms prompted me to do a quick change of plans.

I am not known for cakes or cupcakes – when I bake, it’s usually something exotic, and it usually resembles baklava, biscotti or bread – but I really wanted to see if I could make a cute cupcake with my limited knowledge of cake decoration, and my limited supply of decorating tools. What follows is only partly my own creation. The cupcake part is – verbatim – from Martha Stewart’s website, only halved (because I didn’t need 24 cupcakes sitting out, tempting me).Her white cupcake recipe is perfect and divine, and there is absolutely no need to reinvent the wheel (or the cupcake). The strawberry and white chocolate touch is my own. As you can see in the picture, I never even ended up using the fancy icing tips, as I liked the rustic and simple effect of cutting a whole in a bag. Next time I make these might be when Ontario raspberries are ripe – I think they would work just as well!

Cupcake Recipe: (adapted from http://www.marthastewart.com/336098/strawberry-cupcakes)

1 1/2 cups cake flour (Swan’s Down, if possible)

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp salt

3/4 cup butter

1 cup + 2 tbsp sugar

1/2 cup milk

1 tsp real vanilla extract

4 egg whites

Instructions:

Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together and then set aside. Using a mixer (or a lot of elbow grease) blend 1 cup of the sugar and butter until very smooth, and then add the vanilla and blend. Alternating, and beginning and ending with the flour, add the milk and flour, mixing until smooth and fluffy. Set aside.

In a cold bowl, beat the eggs with mixer until frothy. Then, slowly add the 2 tbsp of sugar, and continue to mix on high until the mixture forms little peaks or waves. Very gently fold the egg mixture into your batter until combined. Line muffin tins with cupcake paper and fill each with a heaping 1/4 cup of batter. Bake for approximately 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the bottom comes out clean. (Alternately, use the trick I was taught by a friend  – at your own risk: wet your finger and very rapidly touch the bottom of the muffin tin; if it sizzles, they are done). Gently remove cupcakes onto a cooling rack and allow to cool for half to one hour.

Strawberries and Icing:

20 small to medium sized strawberries (or raspberries)

2 3.5 oz white chocolate bars (good quality, preferably fair trade)

1 1/2 – 2 cups icing sugar

1/2 cup butter, softened

1 tbsp cream

1/2 tsp vanilla

Instructions:

Place a metal bowl over a pot of simmering water. Put one of the chocolate bars, broken up, into the bowl and melt, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, sift 1 cup of the sugar and use a mixer to blend with the butter. Add vanilla and cream and blend. When the chocolate is melted, allow to cool for a minute or so, then add to the mixture. If will get ‘runnier’ for a minute or two because the heat from the chocolate melts the butter. Gradually add enough of the remaining sugar to thicken your icing. Place in the fridge for 10 minutes.

Almost there...

Meanwhile, use a sharp paring knife and cut out a cone shaped “plug” from the centre of each cupcake. The size of the plug should be approximately the size of your strawberries. Keep the ‘plugs’ as little weight-watcher sized treats and store them  in the freezer. Remove the stems from the strawberries and ensure that excess water is removed by wrapping them in a thick paper towel. Place one strawberry inside each cupcake. Then, using a piping bag or a thick sandwich bag with a hole cut in the bottom, ice each cupcake in a swirl pattern, covering up the centre where the strawberry peaks out. Set cupcakes aside until ready to serve. Just before serving, slice two larger, stemmed strawberries lengthwise (if you pull the stems out with your fingers, the slices should resemble hearts) and gently press one slice, with a square of white chocolate into the tops of each cupcake. It is important to wait until serving to do this, as the juice from the strawberries will bleed onto your icing if you do it in advance.

And that’s it! The instructions look complicated, but it’s not hard at all, and the results are delicious – thanks to Martha!

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