Vino and veg: Pasta pesto

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Last week I made a pasta dish that we often make when we are hurried, tired or not very motivated to cook anything too complicated. I paired it with a lovely white wine and it went so well together that I thought I’d share it with you. It is quite simple and very delicious – particularly in the summer when the vegetables are at their peak. Pasta dishes are handy for us because they can easily be adapted to suit the likes and dislikes of the children. They eat pasta with sliced raw vegetables (cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and carrots) and roasted pine nuts. One prefers pesto and cheese while the other likes simple extra virgin olive oil – both are easy to accommodate and are no extra work!

I use wholewheat pasta or whole spelt pasta which once cooked, I douse with extra virgin olive oil and then I stir in a healthy portion of vegan pesto. I then top it with a variety of oven-roasted vegetables, pour a glass of wine and dinner is served! I would guess the whole process from start to table takes 45 minutes at most.

This time I used aubergine/eggplant, red onion, carrots, cherry tomatoes, pine nuts and fresh arugula and basil to top our pasta and I paired it with a lovely wine called Scaramanga White from 2015. If you read my first post about wine and food pairing, you will notice that this wine is also from the South African wine maker Nabygelegen. It is a beautiful wine which does well on its own at a picnic in the park or paired with food. It is made from a blend of three grapes: 60% Chenin Blanc, 30% Chardonnay and 10% Verdelho. This blend gives great balance, but also a diverse flavor pattern and makes it a fairly easy wine to drink and combine with food.

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It did very well with my pasta dish because it is creamy, full-bodied, and off-dry with plenty of structure. The creamy notes and oak spices were a perfect match for the earthy flavor and creamy texture of the roasted aubergine. The subtle sweetness of the wine highlighted the sweetness of the roasted red onions and carrots. Those same sweet and creamy notes, together with its floral, citrus and spiced bouquet, provided a nice balance to the tart acidity of the tomatoes, the astringency of the arugula and the peppery basil. I would certainly pair these two again!

If you’d like to try the combination yourself, here is the recipe (in the loosest sense of the word). It serves 2 adults.

Ingredients:

  • Wholewheat of whole spelt pasta
  • Pesto (I use this one, which is vegan, but there are probably many out there or it’s pretty easy to make it yourself)
  • 1 medium-sized aubergine, cut into cubes (2.5 cm or 1″)
  • 1 red onion, cut into wedges
  • 2-3 carrots, washed or peeled and sliced into coins
  • 8-10 cherry tomatoes for roasting, whole (plus whatever the kids eat raw)
  • 100 g (or 3 small handfuls) raw pine nuts
  • a handful of arugula per person
  • 5-7 basil leaves per person
  • Parmesan (optional)

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 220 degrees C (425 degrees F). Boil water for pasta (with a splash of olive oil and a pinch of salt).
  2. Prepare the aubergine, onion and carrots. Toss them lightly in olive oil, place on a baking sheet and put in the preheated oven. Make sure you flip them after about 12-15 minutes. Total cooking time is approximately 25-30 minutes.
  3. While the vegetables are roasting, roast the pine nuts on the stove in a pan over medium heat. Keep a good eye on them and shake regularly – they tend to burn quickly once the pan is heated. Once they’re ready, put them in a bowl to cool a bit.
  4. Put the cherry tomatoes on a smaller baking tray and add them to the oven for the last 10 minutes while the vegetables are roasting.
  5. Once the tomatoes are in the oven, cook the pasta.
  6. Stir the pesto into the cooked and drained pasta.
  7. Place your roasted vegetable trio on a thin bed of pasta. Add the tomatoes, tear up the arugula and basil and add it to the top. Finally add your pine nuts (and Parmesan, if using) and enjoy!

If you’re looking to try this wine and live in Amsterdam, you can get it at Eriks’s Delicatessen. If you live elsewhere, I’m sure a simple search online will provide alternative vendors.

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Vino and veg

Okay. Confession time. I like wine – a lot. Not only is wine delicious, but each bottle has a story. Like many things, some stories are more interesting than others, but each bottle comes from somewhere, is made by someone and contains some kind of grape. I like those kind of stories, just like I like stories about food. I like reading about food, looking at it, talking about it, cooking it and eating it. For most of you, my dear friends and family, this is probably old news. For those of you who may not already know it, as a family, we eat predominantly vegetables, but are known to have fish occasionally and even meat, though very rarely. While our vegetarian lifestyle is relevant to my story, the reasons for our choices are not and so we’ll leave those aside.

What I do want to share with you is how these two loves of mine – wine and vegetarian food – play together. If you’re like me, when you visit a wine shop or read about wine, first you read the description of the wine followed by the recommendations for food pairings. The suggested pairings are often simple at best – meat, poultry, fish or vegetarian. I don’t know about you, but that’s just not enough information for me. Vegetarian (and vegan) dishes offer a very wide variety of flavors and textures and thus wine pairing opportunities.

What I’ve discovered during my food and wine journey is that I don’t always find it very easy to pair vegetarian dishes with wine. I have a lot of respect for those sommeliers in fancy restaurants who can pair a beautiful and mouth-watering vegetarian dish perfectly with a wine so artistically and masterfully that both the food and the wine, each lovely on their own, are elevated to another level entirely. Oh my! To an amateur like myself, that can be both inspiring and pretty intimidating. However, after a conversation with some of the staff during a recent visit to the lovely vegetarian restaurant in Cork, Cafe Paradiso, I decided that I would not be deterred. Wine appreciation is a subjective thing, so why shouldn’t I give it a try? On my quest to enjoy this experience at home, I started keeping a little journal about my experiences/experiments (both positive and negative) and thought it might be fun to share them with you here since I suspect that I may not be alone in my desire to make a nice pairing.

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wine-pair_27848438000_oSo, for my first pairing, I’d like to show a pairing that was pretty tasty. The dish is one that we eat pretty often with slight variations based on the vegetables in the fridge. The dish is served on a bed of red and white quinoa topped with beet blocks, caramelized red onion and fennel slices, sliced portobello mushrooms, and cavolo nero (also known as black kale or Tuscan kale) and topped with feta cheese made from goat’s milk. I paired it with one of my favorite Pinot Noirs: Snow Mountain, The Mistress 2015 vintage from the winemaker at Nabygelegen. While writing this post, I read a press release on their website that the 2009 vintage of this particular wine was served during the 60th Jubilee lunch of the Queen of England. Now that is a pretty neat story! Although I wasn’t able to find much about the wine itself on their site, I did read some interesting articles about their 2013 and 2014 vintages written by Michael Olivier if you’d like to read more about it.

wine-pair_28026145072_oIt is from the Bovlei Valley in Wellington, South Africa and although it is a fruit-driven Pinot Noir, it is subtle, complex and elegant with typical earthy and mushroom-like flavors as well as spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper and a bit of vanilla. The earthiness tasted great with the nutty quinoa and the earthy mushrooms, which I cooked separately on a fairly high heat so that they had a nice smoky flavor, and the red fruits, think raspberry, strawberry and some cherry, paired well with the sweet and earthy beets and also gave a lovely contrast to the creamy and salty goat feta cheese. Overall, a successful pairing!

Blueberry Buttermilk Pancakes: a recipe

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We have a Sunday tradition in our house that involves making and eating pancakes or waffles with maple syrup. I’m not even sure when it started, but at least 6 years ago, I think. Probably longer, since I remember eating one or the other when I was a kid on Sunday mornings. The waffles were special because it was one of the few meals that my father made. His cooking responsibilities were limited to the barbeque, carving the turkey on Thanksgiving and making waffles on Sunday mornings. I’m sure he is well-able to make more than those things, but those are the ones that stick in my memory.

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The pancakes we had growing up were invariably made using a pre-made pancake and baking mix, just adding milk, oil and eggs. We did always have real maple syrup to go with them (and real butter – my dad never bought into the “fake” stuff) and if we were lucky, it was local syrup to boot. When I moved to Amsterdam, this pre-mix was no longer an option, so I perused my cookbooks and found a basic recipe in my Better Homes and Gardens “New Cook Book”. As I tend to do, I tweaked it to my taste. I can remember very vividly the first time I made them for my father when he and my mother came to visit, which must have been well over 10 years ago. He tasted my blueberry pancakes and said to me: “Daughter, I think your maple syrup must have gone off. These pancakes taste funny.” Frantic, I tested the syrup and the pancake only to discover that they tasted the same as they always did. Why did he think my syrup wasn’t good? Well, my mother guessed the answer – my pancakes were made from scratch and tasted different than our traditional pre-mix pancakes. I think (and hope) that his taste buds have rebounded from the experience because he seems to enjoy them these days, even eating them when I make them from scratch instead of using the mix during my visits to the States. It is also one of the few things I can count on my kids to eat more of than we do!

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Blueberry Buttermilk Pancakes

Ingredients:

  • 2/3 c spelt flour (or brown rice flour for gluten-free)
  • 2/3 c buckwheat flour
  • 1 T polenta
  • 1 T cornmeal
  • 2 T oat bran (optional)
  • 2 T wheat germ (optional)
  • 1 ½ tsp baking powder
  • ¾ tsp baking soda
  • 1 t ground cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp ground ginger
  • ¼ tsp vanilla powder
  • 1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
  • Pinch of ground cloves
  • 1 egg
  • 1 ¾ c buttermilk
  • 2 T oil
  • 1 c frozen (or fresh) blueberries

Instructions:

  1. Heat the cast-iron griddle. I find I have better results if I start it first and warm it slow and steady on a medium to low heat.
  2. Put the spelt flour, buckwheat flour, polenta, cornmeal, oat bran, wheat germ, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, vanilla, nutmeg, and cloves into a large mixing bowl. Mix well, incorporating plenty of air into the mixture.
  3. In another mixing bowl, beat the egg, adding the buttermilk and oil.
  4. Place the frozen blueberries in a shallow bowl . Sprinkle a tablespoon of the dry flour mixture over the blueberries and gentle roll them around until coated with the flour. This helps prevent them from sticking together. If you are using fresh blueberries, you can skip this step.
  5. Add the wet mixture to the dry, mixing until just moist. Don’t over mix. There will be a few small lumps.
  6. Fold the blueberries gently through the batter.
  7. Bake the pancakes until bubbles form, then flip them and cook until golden brown on both sides. Serve immediately.
    Makes about 18 pancakes.
    Enjoy!

Irish Farmhouse Soup: a recipe

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There is something about winter being just around the corner that makes me long for a generous bowl of steamy soup. You know, the kind that warms, fills and nourishes and needs little more than a slice of crusty bread drizzled in olive oil? I’m a big fan of soup. One of my favorite cookbooks is the Soup Kitchen, which gets used all year long as it’s filled with all kinds of yummy soup recipes. Having said that, when I want something simple and familiar (or I have vegetables in the fridge that need to be used), I reach for ingredients to make my “go-to” soup.

My Irish mother-in-law gave me the base recipe many years ago. When I asked her if she minded me sharing the recipe, she laughed, saying of course she didn’t and that it was my recipe now anyway. I guess she’s probably right given that when I went looking for the paper I wrote it on all those years ago (to “fact check” it before writing this post), I couldn’t find it in my recipe box. Truthfully, I make it often enough to remember it and so she is right. I even wonder if I ever wrote it down, but it doesn’t really matter because the basic recipe is pretty easy, flexible and the best part? My kids usually love it (disclaimer: note I say usually because for some reason they don’t love all vegetables equally). In any case, the base recipe makes enough to feed the four of us (two adults royally and two little people amply) and is exactly the kind of thick comforting soup that we crave as the days here in Amsterdam are at their shortest.

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Irish Farmhouse Soup base recipe:

Makes about 1.5 liters of soup (the recipe can easily be doubled)

Ingredients:

  • 1 medium onion, chopped finely
  • 1 clove of garlic, minced or pressed
  • 1 liter of vegetable stock
  • 1 cup chopped potatoes (about 1 large or 2 medium)
  • 3 cups chopped vegetable(s) of choice (we use one small roasted pumpkin as the kids like it)
  • 2-3 Tablespoons olive oil
  • Pinch of flour
  • Bay leaf
  • Herbs of choice (for pumpkin soup, I add a few sprigs of fresh thyme and oregano and about 1” of fresh diced ginger)

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Instructions:

  1. Heat oil into a heavy-bottomed pot, add fresh herbs, bay leaf, onions and garlic, cooking until onions and garlic are soft.
  2. Add a pinch of flour and stir until onions and garlic are coated.
  3. Add stock and chopped vegetables and bring to a boil.
  4. Lower the heat to a simmer, cover and boil for about 20 minutes or until the vegetables are tender.
  5. Remove herb branches and bay leaf.
  6. Remove from heat and blend for a creamy and thick soup. If it’s thicker than you like, just add a bit of water or stock to thin it.
  7. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve with crusty bread drizzled with extra virgin olive oil.

Tip: If you’re in a rush, just chop the vegetables finely (dice) and they’ll cook much faster.

Another tip: My favorite way to roast pumpkin: Cut the pumpkin in half, scooping out seeds and slicing it into pumpkin “smiles”. Put them on a baking tray, coat thinly with olive oil and bake in a preheated oven at 200C/400F for about 20-25 minutes or until tender (test with a fork). Remove from the oven, let them cool and peel (skin should come off easily).

Enjoy!

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Giving thanks, Amsterdam style

After living abroad for nearly two decades, I still continue the tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving with a handful of my American friends here in Amsterdam. Like many things, once you leave home, you find your own way of celebrating the holidays, building on the celebration you knew as a kid. Celebrating in a different country with a partner who didn’t grow up with the tradition of Thanksgiving has made it all the more interesting to find my “own way” of giving thanks this week.

Growing up, we always had a frozen turkey that my father’s work gave to their employees as a Thanksgiving “bonus”, I suppose. My mother usually prepared it, getting up early to get it in the oven so it would be done by the early afternoon when we would sit down at the table to eat. Our tradition included turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, creamed corn, soft white rolls, lots and lots of black olives, cranberry sauce from a can (for the form more than anything, I guess, since I can’t remember seeing anyone eat it…ever), pickles, more black olives, pumpkin pie with whipped cream and apple pie à la mode, which according to my father was not complete until accompanied by several slices of extra sharp cheddar cheese. This was my tradition of Thanksgiving dinner even as I went to college, making the trip home from Maine for a long weekend full of family and food.

Once I moved to Amsterdam, a weekend trip home was no longer an option, so I had to adapt. A good friend of mine moved over from the States shortly after I did and we decided that for our first Thanksgiving here, we would cook a big traditional dinner for our partners and a group of their (male) friends. Needless to say, it was a new (and expensive) experience for us to find, buy and cook a fresh turkey and all the traditional trimmings in a city abroad. The friends each brought a bottle of wine, which they graciously drank as we cooked. We managed with much help from several cookbooks, producing a fine meal and we were thoroughly exhausted by the end of the day. It was fun (more so for the fellas who got to drink, eat and be merry) and we enjoyed it, really, and yet we didn’t cook Thanksgiving dinner following that formula again. My friend has since moved back to the States and, over the years, the faces around the table have changed, but the tradition has continued.

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This year, we’ve decided to skip the turkey since we won’t be the only vegetarians to share our table. We have settled instead on a lovely roasted sweet potato dish we recently enjoyed on a rare night out at the nearby Drover’s Dog. After a quick chat with the chef, followed by some discussion at our own table, we’ve managed to replicated it at home, tweaking it here and there to our taste, and we look forward to eating it again. Eighteen years have passed since that first experience cooking a Thanksgiving dinner, and I am fairly certain that my cooking skills and my ability to plan a successful dinner have improved. While it remains a daunting task to get a large number of warm dishes on the table at the same time, we have found a new formula. Many things can be prepared ahead of time…and will be. We share the responsibility for cooking by inviting our friends to bring a dish to pass and we have become more flexible in what we serve. We no longer go to many shops, looking for special (and overpriced) items to make the dishes I had growing up. We now try to eat mostly local and in season, buying much of our food from the local farmer’s market, and try to be more mindful of what the tradition is really about, both for us and for our children we hope: being thankful for life’s bounty, for family, for friends and for the opportunity to share stories and laughter around our dinner table.

Happy Thanksgiving!