30 April, 2012

Coffee Orange Nut Bars

I have been food blogging for almost three years. I get invited to review restaurants or test kitchen tools on a regular basis. My email inbox is full of press releases of new cafe and restaurant openings or other food related news. I get asked to publish guest posts on my blog, I get asked for permission to use my recipes/photos somewhere else. Quite a bit to wade through at times. No doubt, a blog develops over the years. And as your blog grows, you might feel obliged to be open to new opportunities.
Yet I still feel awkward to call myself a "food blogger", which I had to at times when I do accept an invite to a food-related event. Is that a hobby, or a job, or what?

If I had to define myself over my hobby or what I do or like to do, I would not be a food blogger. I'd say I am a runner.  I guess I'd prefer a chat with a fellow runner after a race, never ending discussions about training methods, paces and heart rate training zones.  If I had to choose between a food-related event and a race, I'd surely be found at the race. Above all that, I LOVE running. It keeps me sane, happy, fit. I love the social side of running in clubs, I love my competitive edge coming out in races.

The role of food in my life is more to be seen as "eat to live", rather than "live to eat". It goes without saying, I like good-tasting food, flavors and textures. But before all this, it has to be nutritious. Food must give me energy and must make me feel good and healthy.
But then, I am not a nutritionist. My nutritional knowledge is not nearly sufficient enough to tell people, what's good for them and what's not. In the end of the day, food tolerances and intolerances are individual. What works for one, might make someone else sick.

The relation between nutrition, food and health should not be a hobby, but be considered as something, that should be taught and understood as a very basic of life, like reading and writing. I want to eat right so I can move on to all the other exciting things in life. Like running. Or doing photography. Those are hobbies. Or even jobs to a few people.

It's probably no secret that I am nuts about nuts in my diet. These Coffee Orange Nut Bars are my latest to-go snack that I have been making over and over again. I love them as mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack, before or after a run, or even as a little sweet something after dinner. Full of flavor and crunch and deeply satisfying when hunger strikes.

1 cup whole almonds
1/2 cup peanuts
2 tablespoons flax meal
1/4 cup dates, pitted and roughly chopped
1/4 cup dried apricots, roughly chopped
1/2 ripe banana, mashed

1 orange, zest of
1 teaspoon instant coffee
1 teaspoon boiling water

Yields 8-10
Preheat oven to 165C/325F. Line 20x20cm baking dish with parchment paper.

In a food processor, pulse almonds and peanuts until roughly chopped.
Add chopped dates and apricots and pulse again until finely chopped and well combined.

In a small bowl, mix coffee and boiling water. Set aside.

In a small bowl, combine mashed banana, flax meal, orange zest, and coffee mixture. Add to the nut and fruit mixture and blend until well combined. Transfer mixture to baking dish. Spread and press evenly into the bottom of the dish. Bake for 25 minutes or until edges are golden brown.

Let cool completely before cutting into squares or bars. Keep in airtight container in refrigerator for up to one week.
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24 April, 2012

Dukkah Spiced Green Beans and Mushrooms

We really have been spoiled with good weather over the past few weeks here in Dubai.  We were blessed with moderate temperatures (comparatively), clouds (don't really get to see that many throughout the year), and rain (even rarer if that's a word) more than once. 

However, I can feel my body slowly getting into summer mode. Hot soups and heavy meals have taken a back seat. Instead I could eat buckets full of vegetables either cooked or raw in salads. Now that can get boring after some time. The one and only way to avoid it (and to make boring vegetables taste great), is to spice them up. Not actually rocket science to figure that out, right?

Dukkah is an Egyptian spice mix, made from nuts, seeds and spices. In order to increase flavor, they are roasted before blended in to a coarse-crumbly mixture. I made it once before and realized that almost everything can be spiced up with that: coat your chicken before grilling, sprinkle at over raw salads and cooked vegetables. Whatever seems a bit bland and can take a little crunch on top, heap on the Dukkah.

For the past few days, I just grab whatever veggies I could find in the fridge, cooked them or made a salad out of it and sprinkled loads of Dukkah on top. One of my favorites has become green beans and mushrooms with Dukkah. The Dukkah goes especially well with the mushrooms and the green beans add more texture. A really good side dish. Or lunch if you eat a bucketful of it, like I like to do.

4 cups green beans, ends trimmed

1/2 tablespoon butter
4 garlic cloves, sliced
2 cups mushroom, sliced
salt to taste

1/2 cup raw whole almonds
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1/2 tablespoon fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon sea salt 

Serves 4-6
Steam green beans for a few minutes, until tender but still with some crispness. Put into ice water for a few seconds to stop the cooking process. Drain and set aside.
In a large pan, melt butter over medium heat. Cook sliced garlic for a minute before adding sliced mushrooms. Cook for a couple of minutes. Add green beans, heat through the vegetables. Season to taste. Transfer to serving dish and sprinkle with dukkah spice mixture. Serve immediately.

In a dry pan over medium heat, roast almonds for about 5-7 minutes. Set aside.
In the same pan, combine sesame, cumin, coriander, fennel and peppercorns. Roast over medium heat, shaking the pan regularly, until fragrant, about 3-4 minutes. Set aside.
In a food processor, pulse the roasted almonds until roughly chopped. Then add sesame, spices and salt and pulse until finely chopped. Transfer to airtight container.

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20 April, 2012

Spring Favorites 2012

Every now and then,  yet quite regularly, I find myself less experimental in the kitchen. Instead I am cooking the same dishes over and over again and couldn't be happier. Reliable dishes that deliver all the flavor and feel-good factor that you have experienced before and that you expect yet another time. 

I resort to tested and approved recipes often when I have visitors. Or when I am preoccupied with other things. And sometimes nothing new tickles my fancy. In the last few weeks it has been a combination of all three. A good time to serve you another Favorites List. Here is what I have eaten over and over again in the last few weeks, in alphabetical order:

Broccoli Tahini Salad with Almonds and Sesame: ever since I started researching inflammatory and anti-inflammatory foods and their effects our bodies, this broccoli salad has become a staple lunch of mine. I'd even go that far and say, that it might get broccoli haters to enjoy this salad. It's all about flavor combination, textures and crunch.
Carrot Coconut Breakfast Loaf: a delicious and most satisfying breakfast cake or snack in the afternoon. It's grain free and with no added sugar. This cake has become a staple, because I usually have all ingredients in the house, incl. the lonely carrots in the back of the fridge that beg me to be used.
Coconut Almond Oat Crunchies: I hadn't made these cookie bars for a while. For vegan guests at a recent party, I made a vegan version by using coconut oil instead of butter, and used buckwheat flour instead of wholewheat. Delicious!
Coffee Truffles: these truffles reliably keep me going when suffering from lack of sleep. It's just nuts and dried fruit with a tiny bit of maple syrup and some coconut oil, so even without the coffee a good energy ball.
Herb Salad with Green Beans and Pomegranates: Another salad that has become regular as part of my anti-inflammatory diet. Especially loving the mint and pomegranates in this. Instead of steamed green beans,  I often throw in chopped cucumber or peppers to make it all raw (and to avoid getting pots and pans dirty).
Hummus: an old classic for both weekend and weekday lunches. On weekends it accompanies veggie sticks and crackers. On lonely weekday lunches (at the computer), I finish a whole pot of hummus with 2 or 3 whole carrots. Gluten-free and vegan, and so easy to make at home. If you use tinned chickpeas, make sure they contain nothing more than chickpeas, salt and water.
Lemon Sorbet: a little indulgence, but refreshing and invigorating with just three ingredients and without an ice cream maker.
Roasted Green Asparagus: a typical spring vegetable spiced up with Parma ham. So simple, but yet amazing in taste. We overdosed on this dish last year. Now we are ready again.
Zucchini Chickpea Feta Fritters: this is one of my favorite easy dinners, especially after my regular evening runs. Local organic zucchinis are available in abundance at the moment. Eggs are great for dinner as they are filling. For the dairy-free people of you: I often don't even put the feta in, and it is still really good. This dish can also be done with more eggs and less chickpea flour. You can't really mess it up.
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16 April, 2012

Roasted Okra and Tomato Salad

I love this time of the year in Dubai. Those few weeks in spring before it gets too hot.
Where the sky is still sort of clear before endless months of yellowish haze set in.  Now is the time when local produce seems at their best, soaking up the sun and warmth, before they wither in the heat.

Traditionally, we are growing our own tomatoes and a few other veggies in our garden. My husband thinks I have a green thumb. But actually, I am not very caring with my plants. Apart from sowing the seeds in a spot that looks good to me, and watering them regularly, I leave them to themselves. Obviously, the Dubai winter is warm enough and brings enough sunshine to make tomatoes, herbs, green beans and peppers grow in abundance.

Organic farms have opened here in the UAE only in recent years and their choice of local produce is vast these days. Many vegetables that don't grow in my garden (due to limited space or failed attempts of growing them myself), I can buy with the best of a health and environmental conscience, like cucumbers, okras and aubergines.

At a recent job project, I was introduced to oven-roasted okras. Apparently, when oven-roasted, they do not become as slimy inside, and the outside was almost crispy. Ever since I had eaten the oven-roasted version, I wanted to replicate it. While mine did not become as crispy, they were surely not as slimy as the boiled or steamed version. The combination of okra with tomato is a classic, although it was new to me. The acidity of the tomatoes complements the mildness of the okras. Seasoned with just garlic, salt, pepper and some chili flakes they make a perfect side dish or salad for al fresco dining. To give it a bit more substance and to make it a meal by itself, I added buckwheat in a simple lemon olive oil dressing and some roasted pine nuts for texture. It was so good, I ate it all by myself. This is a perfect weekday lunch salad that can be made it advance. Bon appetit!

3 cups of okra (the smaller the better)
1 cup cherry tomatoes

1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 teaspoon chili flakes
salt and pepper
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1 cup raw buckwheat groats, uncooked
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 teaspoon lemon juice, freshly squeezed
salt to taste

1/4 cup pine nuts

Serves 4
Preheat oven to 200C/400F.

Spread okra and tomatoes on a baking sheet. Don't overcrowd.
Combine 1 tablespoon of olive oil with chili flakes, sliced garlic. Pour mixture over the vegetables. Season with salt and pepper. Toss until well coated. Roast for 20-25 minutes.

In the meantime, add buckwheat groats to 2 cups of slightly salted water. Cover and cook over low heat until all liquid has been absorbed, about 10-15 minutes. Set aside to let cool. Once cooled down a bit, combine olive oil and lemon juice and stir into the buckwheat. Season with salt to taste.

Roast the pine nuts in a dry pan over low heat until golden brown, shaking the pan regularly to avoid burning. Set aside.

In a serving bowl, gently combine buckwheat and roasted vegetables. Sprinkle with toasted pine nuts. Can be served warm, at room temperature or cold.
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10 April, 2012

Grain Free Chocolate Coconut Cookies

When I think of my childhood, cookies were inseparably connected to afternoons in the swimming pool or nearby lake. Cookies is what we ate in copious amounts after splashing for an eternity in the water while soaking up the sun to get warm enough to jump into the pool again just a few minutes later. Cookies was the only thing we wanted to eat. Cookies would not melt in the sun, they were easy to carry.

The swimming pool and beach season has started in Dubai (at least for us), and I am finding myself in the kitchen baking cookies. Naturally, I try and make them as healthy and nutritious as possible by sneaking in some flax meal, making them gluten or even grain free.

However, for my family taste and texture comes first (nutrition is secondary). The very first requirement for a good cookie is crunch. These chocolate coconut cookies have a wonderful crisp. I love the deep dark flavor of the chocolate combined with coconut. They are quite filling too, in a pleasant way that makes you enjoy the flavor and texture of those few that you can eat at a time even more. Bon appetit!

3/4 cup almond meal
1/3 cup chickpea flour
2 tablespoons flax meal
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1/3 cup palm sugar (or grated Jaggery)

scant 1/2 cup coconut oil (melted)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 cup desiccated coconut

Yields 25-30
Preheat oven to 180C/350F. Line baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, combine almond meal, chickpea flour, flax meal,  cocoa powder and sugar.
In a small bowl, whisk together coconut oil and vanilla extract. Combine oil mixture with dry ingredients and. Between the palms of your hands, form cherry-sized balls out the dough. Then roll them in desiccated coconut. Place onto the prepared baking sheet and repeat until all dough is used up. Leave 2 to 3 inches space between the balls.
Bake for 10 minutes or until edges are golden. Let cool completely on wire rack.
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02 April, 2012

Kung Pao Chicken with Water Chestnuts and Peanuts

I love Chinese food, although I think authentic Chinese food is hard to find outside China. I spent two years of my childhood in China, and memories of foods, that we had back then, have been stuck with me ever since.
It's been 30 years and some of my food memories may have been slightly changed by the accumulated amount of non-authentic Chinese food that I had in Chinese restaurants around the world. But in the end, I think I can still judge if a certain could have been served to me in China or if I have a westernized Chinese dish in front of me.

I asked our Japanese neighbors if they knew a good Chinese restaurant here in Dubai. Probably not the wisest thing to do. It's a bit like asking a British person to give you recommendations for a good German restaurant. Geographical proximity of two countries is not enough to qualify someone for recommendations.

I was recommended the Royal China restaurant in DIFC in Dubai. A beautifully modern place, kept in black, red and white colors and modern, straight lines. I was happy to see Chinese people eating there. A good sign.
Now here is the lesson: In a Chinese restaurant, order what the Chinese eat. Nothing else. I learned it the hard way. On my two visits to the Royal China, I made the mistake of eating the westernized Chinese foods. They didn't convince. Chicken drowned in sweet chili sauce, prawns covered in sweet chili sauce, noodles coated in sweet chili. When I think of westernized Chinese food, sweet chili sauce is the first thing that comes to my mind. I had spring rolls too, which were almost good: hot and crispy on the outside, but with some un-identifiable vegetables inside, again rather on the sweet side. I ate wasabi prawns. I guess it was my first ever Chinese dish that included mayonnaise. I am sure, 30 years ago and over a period of two years, I hadn't come across a single dish that contained mayonnaise. 
You want to know what the Chinese ate in this restaurant? Broth-based soups. And steamed dim sums, filled with prawns or a meat herb mixture. If I go back to the Royal China, I'd order what the Chinese eat, or as a rule of thumb, anything that has green vegetables or herbs in it. They bring flavor, they stand out, they cannot be drowned in a too sweet sauce.

Nevertheless, the Royal China inspired me to cook some Chinese food at home. This Kung Pao chicken recipe is surely not authentic either, as a few of the main ingredients (like Szechuan peppercorns) are not easily available here in Dubai. But it makes a quick tasty dinner on a weekday night, paired with rice. Any leftovers are good shredded on a salad of raw vegetables the next day for lunch. Bon Appetit.

4 chicken breasts
1 tablespoon corn starch

1 tablespoon sesame oil (divided)
3 large garlic cloves, minced
4 spring onions, white and light green part finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated
1/2 teaspoon chili flakes (or to taste)

1/4 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons water
1 1/2 tablespoons honey

1/2 cup water chestnuts (tinned), drained and quartered
1/3 cup raw unsalted peanuts

* if you like your Kung Pao Chicken with lots of sauce, add some water to the sauce ingredients and up to 1 teaspoon cornstarch to thicken the sauce.

Serves 4
Cut the chicken breast into small 1-inch cubes. Place in a bowl, sprinkle with the cornstarch and toss until well coated.

In a wok, heat 1/2 tablespoon of the oil over medium heat. Fry the chicken for about 5 minutes, until no longer pink in the middle. Meanwhile, combine all ingredients for sauce and keep in a bowl nearby.
Transfer cooked chicken pieces to a bowl, and heat the remaining oil in the pan. Add garlic, onions, ginger and chili flakes and fry for a few seconds. Now add the sauce ingredients and cook until sauce starts to thicken. Add the chicken pieces back into the pan. Stir in water chestnuts and peanuts. Cook until thoroughly heated, another minute or so. Serve hot over rice.

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