Hello to halloumi

Do you know what halloumi is? If not, you are seriously missing out on this delectably delicious and ‘moorish’ treat. Halloumi is often referred to as the ‘vegetarian’s bacon’ (but it doesn’t taste like bacon!). It is a hard cheese traditionally made with goat's and sheep’s milk, but also often with cow’s milk. Its origins are Cypriot, Greek and Turkish and while I’ve combined it mostly with Middle Eastern flavours, here in Australia it is used in a variety of dishes.
An uncomplicated way to eat halloumi is to grill or pan-fry it and serve it with fresh vegetables. I used ingredients like pumpkin, patty pan squash, red capsicum and red onion and dressed them in olive oil. Once they were cooked I added some fresh heirloom tomatoes to add colour and acidity.  I pan-fried halloumi separately and then added dried chili, a splash of balsamic vinegar and some agave syrup (you can also use honey). I added fresh herbs like thyme and basil and a squirt of lemon was the perfect finishing touch. Try it out and let me know how it goes! PS: you can find halloumi in most stores that stock Greek or Middle-Eastern foods.
Sidenote: seeing as I’m a big believer in food and education and a huge supporter of resources that help nourish our awareness of food and its natural origins, I wanted to give a shout-out to a new Wiki project called MyCityCuisine. I encourage foodies/food bloggers like yourself – who have a great deal of food knowledge and skills – to continue to share with projects like this.  

vegetable halloumi bake
serves 2/4 side serves

1/4  pumpkin (I used kent but you could use butternut squash as well), sliced
1/2 red capsicum, cut into pieces
1/2 red onion, sliced
4 patty pan squash, quartered
3-4 cloves garlic - crushed
2 tbsp olive oil
2 sprigs thyme
1 tsp dried sage
sea salt and cracked black pepper, to taste
500g heirloom tomatoes, halved
180g halloumi, sliced
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 tsp dark agave syrup *
1/2 lemon

Preheat oven to 180 degrees Celsius
Place squash, capsicum, onion, squash, garlic and thyme in rectangular baking dish. Dress with oil, sea salt, pepper and sage and bake 15-20 minutes or until pumpkin is just tender. Add tomatoes and a bit more olive oil. Bake another 10 minutes or until tomatoes are just blistered.  Finish with a squeeze of lemon.

In the meantime, place a pan onto medium heat (don’t add oil), add sliced halloumi (make sure not to overcrowd pan so it doesn’t steam) and cook on one side 1-2 minutes until coloured well. Turn halloumi and cook other side. Take off heat, dress halloumi with balsamic vinegar, syrup and dried chili and then add to the baking dish to finish in oven for another 5 minutes. Take out and enjoy!

*agave syrup or agave nectar is a sweetener that dissolves easily and is sweeter than sugar so make sure to use less.  Use honey if you can’t find this product at health food stores.

Prime time for pears

It’s autumn in Sydney. The change in season has brought rainy days but also a change in the produce available. The fruits of the summer – mangoes and berries – have been replaced by apples, peaches and pears. Pears are the least expensive fruit at the moment so I buy a lot of them. What do you do with a kitchen full of pears, you ask? Try poaching them.
For some, poached pears may conjure up bad memories of old-fashioned desserts - overcooked and mushy fruits drowning in far too much sugary syrup. But don’t be fooled: poached fruit can be a light alternative to heavy and creamy desserts and it can be a beautiful dish to impress friends with at dinner parties.  
To add richness to an otherwise cheap dessert, use a delicious, dark red wine (a wine you would drink) and fresh, strongly scented spices like star anise, vanilla bean and whole green cardamom.
When in season pears are already very sweet so I just add some honey to bring out their flavour, which also gives the perfect stickiness factor to enrich the dark red winey syrup. 

honey and wine spiced pears
serves 4

4 firm pears (use any type but I used Bartlett)
full bodied red wine* – use enough to cover pears (1/2 bottle or more)
1 tbsp organic honey
2 green cardamom pods – crushed
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 vanilla bean – scraped
1 star anise

Peel pears and place into small pot.  Cover pears with red wine (dilute with water if desired), add honey and spices.  Place pot onto medium heat and simmer pears until just soft or a knife inserts easily into flesh. Once cooked, keep poaching liquid in pot, remove pears and keep aside. Reduce poaching liquid until thick and syrupy (make sure to watch as it can burn).  Plate pears and pour a little syrup on top.  I served these alone but you could also serve with gelato/ice cream and/or biscuits. Enjoy.

*if using all wine is too strong for your taste, add some water to dilute

Simple spaghetti Saturday

Spaghetti - a thin, long and stringlike type of pasta – is the quintessential Italian food. It is typically eaten with meatballs or in a tomato-based meat sauce. I love spaghetti, but I often prepare it in a non-traditional way. I enjoy cooking tomato sauce from scratch but - especially when the weather feels like spring (even though it’s autumn!) - I want something lighter and fresher but still hearty.
I used one of my favourite ingredients - the borlotti bean.  This beautifully speckled bean is full of protein and has a firm yet creamy texture. I added fresh cherry tomatoes, garlic infused olive oil, freshly shaved pecorino romano and baby basil.  I finished it with a little sprinkle of dried red chili.  I love wholemeal or wholegrain pasta – it’s healthy for one, but it also has a rich grainy texture and stronger flavour. Remember - you have to cook it (a little) longer than regular pasta.
This was a great, light dinner but would also make a tasty and filling lunch.

Rye not?

I miss a number of things about living in the Netherlands - mostly I miss my wonderful family living there.  But I also miss a couple of common or everyday Dutch items like beautiful dark bread.
Dutch people, much like other Northern Europeans, love their dark bread and take it seriously. I remember strolling markets and stores and seeing shelves stocked with many different shades of dark bread – baguettes to rolls to crispbread. Hardly any white bread was to be found. Given how healthy dark, whole grains are, I think this is a great way to approach eating.
Rye is one of those strong grains – hearty and rich with lots of flavour. I wanted to make a type of roggebrood (famous dutch rye bread), but I wanted it to be a snack like crispbread. I added caraway – a famous spice added to rye breads. Caraway lends a lovely perfume, almost like licorice but not entirely like anise seed. I also added pink sea salt before baking which added the perfect touch to the dense yet crispy rye.
I used my snack bread to create these little pink hors d’oevres. I topped the rye breads with smoked salmon, lemony cream cheese, fresh dill and shibazuke pickles (a Japanese pickled vegetable that you can find at most Asian food stores). I simply love the colour combination of the dark brown with different shades of pink and bright green. Almost looks too good to eat doesn’t it? Almost…

rye crispbread
makes approximately 24 crispbreads
recipe slightly adapted from epicurious  
*use organic if available

1 tsp active dried yeast
1 cup warm water
1 1/3 cup rye flour
1 1/3 cup all purpose flour
1 tbsp caraway seeds, toasted
1 1/2 tsp pink sea salt

cream cheese spread
1/2 cup cream cheese
2 tbsp yoghurt
1/2 lemon for juice (1 tsp zest)
salt and pepper

4-6 oz thinly sliced smoked salmon, cut into smallish pieces
24 pieces shibazuke pickles (if you can’t get these use slices of pink ginger)
sprigs of fresh dill
To make the crispbreads: first mix together yeast with warm water and let stand until foamy (around 5 minutes or so).  In a large bowl* add 1 cup rye and 1 cup plain flour, caraway seeds, and half the salt and mix in with yeast water mixture until incorporated. Gradually mix in remaining flour (2/3 cup).  Mix dough well until it begins to pull away from sides of the bowl, then knead/mix another 5 minutes.

Gather dough into ball and place into oiled bowl. Cover bowl with wrap and leave in warmish area to proof – takes about 1 1/2 hours.

Preheat oven to 180 degrees C.

Cut dough in half and flatten each piece with lightly floured fingers to form 2 (6 by 4-inch) rectangles. Let stand a few minutes and roll out each piece onto lightly floured surface into a 15-by-10-inch rectangle (1/8 inch thick).  Transfer each sheet to lightly oiled baking sheet. Cut edges to make it look more neat and then dock all over with tines of fork. Let rest 10 minutes, cover with damp cloth.  I made perforated lines with a pizza cutter – not cutting through all the way but tracing to ensure that it would be easy to break off once baked. You could do this with the fork as well. Sprinkle with the rest of the salt.

Bake in upper and lower thirds of oven, switching halfway between until golden and crisp, roughly 20 minutes. Take out and let cool. Break into pieces.

To make spread: mix cream cheese, yoghurt and lemon zest and juice.  At first it seems like it won’t mix smoothly but keep mixing! Add salt and pepper.  Spread onto cooled crispbreads, top with slices of salmon, a pickle and sprig of dill. Voila!

 *I didn’t use an electric mixer since I don’t have one but the old fashioned way - using my hands and muscles - worked just as well!