Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Beautiful Fruit Plates and Salads

Fresh pineapple, kiwi, banana, raspberries, mango, mandarin, blueberries and strawberries

Nothing better than a colourful fruit plate for breakfast, dessert, or snack! 

Berry fruit salad: strawberries, blueberries and raspberries

Tropical fruit salas: pineapple, banana, mango and kiwi
Photos and Recipes by Alessandra Zecchini ©

Friday, November 25, 2016

How to grow and make your own gari (pickled ginger for sushi)

To make gari, the lovely pink pickled ginger for sushi, you need to have very fresh ginger roots, which are not to easy to find. So I grew my own! Bough ginger roots sometimes have a little green bud, or develop one if you leave them outside the fridge, and in this case you can just break a piece off (the one with the bud, of course) and plant it! I did just this, not knowing what to expect, and I was rewarded with a big leafy ginger plant! When I 'harvested' the roots they were fresh and fragrant, perfect for making gari. 

For the recipe I looked up one of my favourite books, The Book of Sushi, published by Kodansha International. Sadly Kodansha doesn't publish anymore in English, which is a real pity as they made some outstanding books on Japanese culture, including several cooking books, so this book may not be easy to find now.

I washed my ginger roots (I could not break much of it, as I made the mistake of planting it in a pot with a lemon tree and the root was too deep down to remove completely), but I had enough.

The skin is easy to remove with a spoon or finger nails. Remove the buds, you just need the root, hopefully with a hint of pink in it. Then slice the root as finely as you can manage.  

Then I added a few generous pinches of salt (I used some unrefined salt, but the book is not specific on which salt - or how much, to use) and left it stand for one day. I put a weight on top too, to make sure that the ginger got well pickled by the salt, but this was not requested by the original recipe.
The day after I rinsed the ginger under fresh water.

Then the book says: ....place in a marinade made of 1 cup of rice vinegar, 7 tablespoons water and 2½ taspoons sugar. Allow the ginger to marinate one week.

Well, first of all I noticed that I run out of rice vinegar, but I had some sushi vinegar, which already contains sugar and salt. Secondly, and this is my personal taste, I rather use less sugar (and salt) so I did a mixture of half sushi vinegar and half water. Thirdly, I brought the mixture to the boil, threw the ginger slices in, boiled them from a few seconds and turned the element off. I did this simply because I felt safer pickling it this way, and the result was great! I stored the gari in a glass jar in the fridge for one week before using it, now it is about two months old, almost finished, but still very good.

The original colour is a very light pink, which I like very much as it feels natural to me. The second pink, very vibrant, I made by soaking my own made gari for just a few minutes in the brine of shibazuke, which is a Japanese pickled mix of cucumber and eggplant and red shiso. It is the red shiso that gives out the pink/magenta colour, so anything picked with this leaf will work (and pickles also have plenty of brine left over, which I never throw away but use to colour rice.

Waste not waste not, this is my motto!

Natural gari (top) and gari coloured with red shiso (bottom)

I have to say that I was very happy with the results for taste, texture and ... colours!

Photos and Recipes by Alessandra Zecchini ©

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Sage flower butter

Sage flowers are beautiful and have a delicate taste of sage, lighter than the leaves. They are perfect for sprinkling on food like risotto, pasta, bean salads and roasted vegetables. I also like to make sage flower butter, which is also a way to make the petals last longer (sage butter will keep in the fridge for a couple of months, depending on the expiring date of the butter, of course!). There are two ways to make this: one is to melt the butter completely (a bit like making ghee) and then insert the flowers little by little while the butter is cooling, and then pour it into a container before it is completely solid. This way you loose a little aroma, but the butter lasts longer. The other is to soften the butter at room temperature and then work the flowers in with a fork or spatula, and then roll the butter up into a log and refrigerate. I love this but then I end up using too much butter as it is so good on warm bread...). In either cases every time you need a bit of flavoured butter you can just cut it or scoop out (in the photo I used an old butter curler I got from Italy). Flowers have less flavour than leaves, but the the petals melts in your mouth, making it ideal for those who find sage leaves a bit too tough.

My favourite way to use sage flower butter is on fresh tagliatelle, and then you need just a bit of Parmigiano and you are done! Delicious!

Photos and Recipes by Alessandra Zecchini ©

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Friday, November 11, 2016

Oyster mushrooms with lemon soy butter

When asked what is my favourite vegetable sometimes I reply that it is a fresh porcino mushroom (boletus edulis), and I say this knowing very well that mushrooms do not classify as vegetables... they are fungi, neither fruit nor vegetable. But no one in New Zealand ever asks me what is my favourite fungi (they do in my village in Italy, for sure), only what is my favourite vegetable, and mushrooms are usually defined as a side vegetable (even eaten at breakfast! This thing still puzzle me).  

The fact is that to me mushrooms rarely take the place of a side vegetable, but they tend to be the main player: pasta with mushrooms, risotto with mushrooms, polenta with mushrooms, mushroom fritters, mushroom burgers, mushroom dumplings, staffed mushrooms...

 For a vegetarian they substitute meat, and in the old days in my mountains in Italy they used to be called carne di bosco 'meat of the woods'.

We never bought mushrooms when I was a child, they grew all around us and we just foraged. We also dried them for winter, or preserved them in olive oil (more rarely, mushrooms may have been abundant, but olive oil was expensive). 

Here in NZ only very occasionally I find field mushrooms, more rarely porcini (it happened in Christchurch once long time ago and I was the only one who ate them, everybody else watching me to see if I was going to die a painful death from poisoning). 

As far as commercial varieties go, I use plenty of dried mushrooms (both porcini and different Asian mushrooms) and the usual button and portabello mushrooms that you find at the supermarket. Fortunately in recent years the interest in more 'exotic' types of mushrooms has increased and now you can find some types of fresh Asian mushrooms too, especially in Asian stores. So I was delighted when Meadows Mushrooms presented the members of the Guild of Food Writers a pack of lovely oyster mushrooms. I love oyster mushrooms and hope to find them in my local supermarket soon!

The only thing I did with these beauties was to put them in the skillet with butter and sauté them on both sides. To make mushrooms easy to digest you need to cook them in a way that they 'loose' water, this is important with foraged mushrooms, if there is a toxic one in you mix making it 'loose water' made it edible (or lowered the risks of tommy ache). Button mushrooms and other varieties can be eaten raw, but personally I prefer them cooked. Of course if a mushrooms is deadly this cooking tip is useless, no matter how much you cook it, but this is not a problem we are facing with commercial varieties!

So, but back to cooking edible mushrooms: let them loose water, yes, but remember that generally mushrooms should not be cooked for too long or they will lose flavour too. So as soon as these oyster mushrooms looked ready to me (a few minutes) I added a drizzle of Japanese soy sauce and some lemon juice. Add more butter too if you like, for a bit more fat, juice and taste. Serve piping hot on a bowl of plain short grain rice, drizzling the juices on top. 

And now the update from the garden: roses, rhododendron and passion fruit in flower!
Happy weekend!

Photos and Recipes by Alessandra Zecchini ©

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Asparagus and onion weed soup

I have been cleaning the garden for planting and picked a few onion weeds with some nice juicy bulbs, plus some little potatoes and cavolo nero, so I put everything into a soup, with the addition of some asparagus, and vegetable stock. I blended everything (but left our a few whole steamed asparagus tips to add later) and used some onion weed and pansy flowers for decoration.

Photos and Recipes by Alessandra Zecchini ©

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Caprese with three types of tomatoes and two types of basil

The weather has been strange, one moment sunny and then rainy again, and I needed a colorful salad to keep me happy! So here is a Caprese with bocconcini, and I used cherry tomatoes, beef tomatoes and yellow tomatoes, plus green basil and purple basil. And a few very young leaves of cavolo nero from the garden :-). Drizzle with olive oil, add a pinch of salt, and the sun is shining!

I have prepared my reading deck, with flowers and all...

And cut the lavender to dry for scented sachets… but now it is raining again… never mind! Spring in Auckland!

Photos and Recipes by Alessandra Zecchini ©

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Pea, onion weed and feta dip, and butter peas with onion weed, again!

Spring recipe for New Zealand! Personally I find peas a bit boring, but I love the colour, and the frozen ones are so cheap, and if you add some onion weeds, which are free, and a little butter and salt, you have a quick and delicious side veggie. Plus you can use the leftovers to make a low cost dip just by adding a little feta. 

For the peas, just clean and chop the onion weed (bulbs, stem and leaves, leave the flowers aside for decorations, they can be eaten too!). Melt a dollop of butter and add the chopped onion weeds, then add the frozen peas (don't boil the first, it is not necessary) and a little salt. Stir, cover and simmer (add a tiny bit of water when needed, but never too much). Enjoy!! 

With the leftover peas, just blend them with some feta and some of the brine from the feta (if you feta has no brine use a little water). Add more raw onion weed if you like a stronger taste. Super yummy on bread and crostini, with chips, eggs, salads or as a spread.

And now a photo of my cat Nikita

And of my garden! Happy weekend!

Photos and Recipes by Alessandra Zecchini ©

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Easiest pavlova recipe ever!

Personally I am not a great fan of pavlovas, but they are so easy to make and a good way to use egg whites, so once or twice a year a make one. This is my easiest recipe so far.

3 egg whites 
1 pinch of salt
1 tbsp white vinegar
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
200g white sugar

Start the evening before.

The most important ingredient is egg whites, use free range and possibly organic eggs for egg whites that have lots of proteins and beat into perfect standing peaks! Start beating the egg whites at high speed with a pinch of salt. Add the vinegar, then the cream of tartar, then the sugar (I add this in three-four goes, but quickly). Don't need to use caster sugar if you are beating at high speed and if the egg whites are really stiff. Sometimes I forget the cream of tartar so I add it after the sugar, nothing has ever happened. Some people add vanilla, but I like pavlova to smell and taste of meringue, not of vanilla! The vinegar takes away that eggy edge, in case you are worried.

Heat the oven at 200°C or more. It has to be really hot!

Scoop the meringue onto a oven tray lined with baking paper, making a circle. I don't like to pipe the meringue, I prefer the 'spatula' look on a pavlova. Place at the centre of the oven then turn the oven off immediately. Leave overnight and don't open the door (oven door, I mean, you can open the other doors in the house!). 

The day after take your pavlova out and decorate with cream before serving, and with the fruit you like best. I even used my homemade cherries in cognac, they work very well as they are not sweet and very alcoholic and go well with the very sweet taste of the meringue.

And if you are into flowers, well, pansies and violets are edible too, and ever so pretty! These are from my garden, they make every dessert, even the simplest, look beautiful!

Photos and Recipes by Alessandra Zecchini 

Monday, October 10, 2016

Soft tofu and avocado sashimi served on homemade disposable bamboo dishers made with bamboo leaf sheath

There is no much to this dish really, just soft tofu with grated ginger and avocado (add wasabi and say sauce) plus some pickles, mostly bought except for the cucumber (recipe here).

The exciting thing for me here are the bamboo platters! I have some bamboo in the garden and it is shedding leaf sheaths. I love those fancy bamboo disposable dishes that you can buy in home stores, so I though of making my own. To clean the sheaths I just placed them in the dishwasher! Some rolled up a bit, but after a couple of days they were flat again! The dishwasher took away the dirt but some black stains remained, which makes me wonder how ecologically they treat the commercial plates, since they are so pale and spotless! But now I can make my own and doesn't matter if they are a little stained, they are natural and lovely to look at!

Photo and Recipe by Alessandra Zecchini ©

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Festival Italiano 2016

It rained and poured, but Festival Italiano went ahead, with Italian flair and with a big turnout! Thank you all for braving the weather and coming along, Grazie Auckland!


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