dark chocolate, mint and berry pavlova with hazelnut praline

A few years ago, I came across a recipe by Nigella Lawson for a chocolate pavlova topped with double cream, raspberries & chocolate shavings. It looked delicious, chocolatey and rich, and true to form I… well, I decided to make up my own version. That process basically involved making a traditional meringue with the late additions of raw cocoa, dark chocolate & syrupy balsamic. After another read of the recipe and some consideration, I also decided to eliminate my usual addition of cornflour. I suppose I assumed that in Nigella’s recipe, the cocoa would stabilize the meringue as needed.

Scooping the raw meringue onto a baking sheet, I was pleased – it looked beautiful, glossy and thick, studded with beads of deep, dark chocolate. The oven door closed with a soft thud. I glanced at the clock. Then I waited.

Fast forward a couple of hours and the now-cooled meringue disc was out of the oven, sitting proudly upon my kitchen bench. It looked beautiful, high and crisp, slight fault lines exposing a chocolate-studded marshmallowy interior. With a smile, I inverted it onto a serving platter, eagerly topping it with thick whipped double cream. This was where the beauty faded. A crack became a crater and before I knew it, the cream and cherry topping had fallen into a deep, dark hole. It still tasted delicious, but since then I’ve perfected my recipe to eliminate the crater whilst also altering it to become a meringue torte. As you’ll see, the stabilizing cornflour is back whilst other small changes such as fresh mint, homemade cherry jam and hazelnut praline create freshness, crunch and a dessert to remember.

As you might have guessed, this pavlova’s become a hit amongst family and friends, alongside another variation they call ‘Black Forest Pavlova’ due to it’s resemblance to a certain German torte. Like the cake, both variations are richly delicious, creamy, moist, and studded with juicy black cherries. The recipe below is for the mint and berry version, but check the included ‘notes’ for tips to transform it into a Black Forest. Try one for your next celebration, especially if you’ve got chocaholics on the list. You (and they) won’t be disappointed.

Dark Chocolate, Mint and Berry Pavlova with Hazelnut Praline

Serves 6-8

For the meringue:

  • 6 egg whites
  • 270g superfine caster sugar
  • 3 tbsp raw cocoa powder, sieved
  • 1 tsp of cornflour, sieved
  • 1 tsp balsamic vinegar
  • 80g dark chocolate (preferably 70% cocoa)

To serve:

  • 500ml full-fat whipping cream
  • Minted berry filling (recipe to follow)
  • 50g dark chocolate (preferably 70% cocoa), coarsely shaved
  • 1/2 cup hazelnut praline (recipe to follow)
  • Mint leaves & whole black cherries for garnish

Preheat your oven to 180 degrees C (350 degrees f).  Take two sturdy baking trays (at least 30x30cm in size) and cut a square piece of baking paper to fit each. Trace a central circle around 20cm in diameter (I use a 20cm diameter cake tin as a template) on each piece of baking paper, then set your lined trays aside.

Place your egg whites in a clean, dry mixing bowl. Beat with an electric mixer until soft peaks form, then add the sugar a spoonful at a time, beating until your meringue is stiff and shiny.

At this point, add your cocoa, balsamic, cornflour and chopped chocolate. Gently fold in with a spatula or balloon whisk until thoroughly mixed. Place half of your meringue on each paper-lined baking tray, in the centre of your traced circles. Smooth out to fill the circle, ensuring that your mound has a smoothish top and defined sides.

Turn your oven down to 150 degrees C (300 degrees f), then place your two trays in the oven (on central shelves, if possible). Cook for around 60-75 minutes, switching your trays half way through the cooking process. You will know your meringue is cooked when the exterior looks crisp and dry, and it feels hard beneath your fingers. Don’t wait for it to crack – this means that it’s already gone too far! When cooked, turn off your oven, leaving your meringue discs inside to cool with the door slightly ajar for at least 2 hours, or overnight (if you remove them at this point, they will cool too quickly and the meringue may crack and collapse).

To serve your meringue torte: Invert one of your meringue discs onto a large, flat bottomed serving plate. Whisk your cream until light and fluffy, then cover your meringue base with one third of your whipped cream, leaving a little ‘ridge’ around the edge to hold in your filling. Top this with half of your minted berry mixture, half of your hazelnut praline (recipes for both below) and half of your shaved chocolate. Cover this with a little more cream (to act as an adhesive for your next meringue), then place your other meringue disc on top.

Top your meringue with as much of the remaining whipped cream as you like, your remaining minted berry mixture, hazelnut praline, shaved chocolate and reserved whole cherries. I like to let some shaved chocolate and praline fall haphazardly on the plate’s rim. Add on your reserved mint leaves to garnish, then you’re all done. Serve generous slices as everyone’s sure to lick the plate.

Minted Berry filling:

  • 2 heaped tbsps black cherry jam (my favourite is Bonne Maman Cherry Preserve)
  • 200g fresh pitted black cherries (pitted and halved)
  • 250g punnet of fresh strawberries
  • One bunch of fresh mint (equivalent to 1/2 cup shredded leaves)

Place your cherry jam into a medium sized bowl. Add in the topped, halved strawberries (or quartered, depending upon the size of the fruit), pitted and halved cherries and shredded mint. Mix well and allow to macerate for at least an hour. If your fruit start to bleed and juice collects in the bottom of your bowl, don’t worry… this is normal. You can either serve the berries and juice as is, allowing some of the trickling dark juices to penetrate the meringue, or if preferred, strain your minted fruit and then reduce the remaining liquid in a saucepan (over high heat, allow mixture to come to a boil, then turn the heat down to low and simmer until the fluid reaches a jammy consistency). Place your strained fruit on either layer of cream and drizzle a little reduced liquid as desired. I like option two, but remember to taste and add a squeeze of lemon juice if the concentrated juices are too richly sweet…  your meringue will be sweet enough.

Hazelnut Praline:

  • 1/2 cup caster sugar
  • 1/4 cup whole hazelnuts
  • 1-2 tbsp of cold water

Place your hazelnuts on a baking tray and lightly toast them in the oven until you can see the skins start to loosen. Remove from oven and allow to cool. Once cool to the touch, wrap the nuts in a dry tea towel to form a ‘parcel’. Rub them vigorously to remove the skins. Any remaining skin should be easily removable with your hands or a blunt knife. Coarsely chop half of the nuts, leaving the other half whole. Place them on a baking-paper-lined tray.

Place the caster sugar in a shallow pan with the cold water, then agitate (I mean, move the pan about) until the water coats most of the sugar crystals. Cook over medium heat, stirring for five minutes or until the sugar dissolves. Increase heat to high, then bring mixture to the boil. Boil without stirring for 5-7 minutes or until the mixture begins to turn reddish gold. When this happens, even if it’s just in one corner, remove the pan from the heat and then agitate the mixture until the golden colour spreads throughout all of the liquid. You’ve just made a basic wet caramel (as opposed to dry caramel, which is made just by melting sugar crystals).

Allow mixture to cool slightly (any bubbles should subside), then pour your caramel over the prepared hazelnuts, covering them as evenly as possible. Allow to cool. Once the mixture solidifies, you can either break it into shards or as I do, coarsely chop it to scatter over your finished pavlova. Any leftover praline shards are delicious eaten on their own with coffee, or crumbled, to scatter generously over ice-cream.

Notes for a perfect Pavlova:

If you’ve developed a habit of producing meringue failures (or literal ‘flops’… haha I am so funny) then read on right here for troubleshooting tips:

  • Before you start, make sure that your bowl, whisk or beaters are completely clean, dry and free of grease. Any trace of oil, grease or moisture could be enough to prevent your egg whites from aerating.
  • Use fresh eggs, separate them when cold and then allow them to come to room temperature before whisking. From prior experience I’ve found that fresh eggs separate much better than older ones and have less obvious water content. They’re also a lot more stable once whisked, which makes them easier to work with when building your meringue disc.
  • If you get any eggshell or yolk in your mixture of whites, discard them and start again. This seems harsh, but any traces of yolk can spoil the composition of your whisked eggwhites, preventing your meringue from setting properly.
  • Make sure that all of your sugar is completely dissolved during the whisking process. Undissolved sugar will cause ‘weeping’, or beads of moisture to form on the meringue. A trick to tell if your sugar is dissolved is to rub a little bit of the uncooked meringue between your fingers – if you can feel any granules, keep whisking.
  • The addition of acid (including vinegar, lemon juice, citric acid) helps to stabilise your meringue, and makes the meringue ‘foam’ much less likely to suffer from the effects of overbeating (separation of the water from solids, meringue collapse, lumpiness). In other words, acid is good. Cornflour plus acid is even better.
  • For expanding the recipe: basic composition of a meringue is 55g (1/4 cup) caster sugar for each egg white. I play around with this a little but if you’re new to making meringues, use this as a guide.
  • If you’re worried about your meringue collapsing, use a palette knife to draw furrows around the edge. This will help support the edges of your pavlova to prevent it cracking and collapsing.
  • You can make meringues a couple of days in advance. Store them in an airtight container, away from heat and moisture, before use.

P.S. Apologies for the noticeable lack of images containing the entire filled pavlova. Unfortunately I assembled it at night and then made various attempts to photograph it under a range of artificial light sources. Epic fail, to say the least. So… if you want to see the full beauty of this mint, berry and cream laden mound of chocolate deliciousness, you’ll just have to make one yourself. You’ll be glad you did.

spiced hummus, flatbread, rainy days and radishes

I’m feeling a little sentimental today. Maybe it’s something to do with the onset of winter, the seemingly endless rain and the fact that I’m sore and sniffly for the fourth time in just over two months. Yeah, I think I’m sad. Or more accurately, suffering from SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder, more commonly known as the ‘winter blues’. That’s what I tell myself, anyway, as I curl up in a little ball under a polar fleece blanket with lingering melancholy seeping into my bones like moisture into porous stone.

Now, enough with the self-indulgent crap. I have had several opportunities today to do things that would never be possible on a normal working Tuesday:

  • I slept for seven daylight hours (SEVEN!) before waking up at approximately 8.15pm in a strange state of the unknown (ever had one of those moments where you wake up, still half unconscious, uncertain as to where you are or whether it’s night or day? Yep, it was one of those times). I then messaged my husband and was reminded that I’m Grover from the Muppets, on holidays in the Bahamas. How could I forget?
  • I read six chapters of an amazing book called Sidetracked by Henning Mankell. Now, I’m not a habitual reader of crime fiction but Swedish writer Mankell is pretty darn good. Even if I did need to Google what a ‘rape field’ was (if you’re equally curious, rape is a flowering plant related to canola, used primarily for production of vegetable oil and biodiesel. Interesting).
  • I ate snacks on the couch with my love whilst he worked on his VFX essay for college. Whilst eating radishes, hummus and seasoned flatbread I learnt that the ‘bluescreen’ method used for chroma key compositing was actually invented way back in the 1930’s by an American named Larry Butler to be used on the film ‘The Thief of Baghdad’ (1940). Smart guy.
  • I watched this video of Charley the Duck. Over and over and over. Especially 0:37. So freaking cute.

Now, as this is a food-related blog I’m naturally going to include a few notes about the snacks we had earlier, which are supremely simple to make but really delicious. Alongside instructions for seasoned flatbread and my version of hummus, I’ve also included a simple recipe for lemon-infused olive oil which is my go-to topping for extra delicious hummus, ciabatta slathered in borlotti bean puree, or even just seamed asparagus, green beans or broccolini. Yum.

So… read on for the promised recipes, young padawan. And be thankful for couch days, rain that waters the earth, sleep, ducklings, a body that heals and loved ones who give therapeutic hugs when you’re feeling down. Take pleasure in the small things. I’m beginning to realise that they’re all I need.

Spiced Hummus

Makes about 1 cup

  • 400g can chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained
  • 2 heaped tbsp tahini (sesame paste)
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 – 1 tsp dried chilli flakes
  • 1/2 garlic clove
  • 1 tsp dried cumin seeds
  • sea salt, to taste

Add your garlic, chilli flakes, cumin and a sprinkle of sea salt to a mortar and pestle and grind to a smooth paste. Place in the bowl of a food processor with your chickpeas and a little lemon juice. Blend until the ingredients form a thick paste. Add the rest of your lemon juice and about half the olive oil. Blend again, until the mixture looks thick, smooth and creamy (if it’s too thick or grainy, add in more olive oil and taste as you go). Taste, and season with a little more salt if necessary.  Place in a bowl and top with a drizzle of lemon oil to serve.

Lemon-Infused Extra Virgin Olive Oil

If you can’t be bothered infusing your own oil, my favourite shop-bought variety is Australian Cobram Estate Lemon Infused extra virgin olive oil. I’m not in any way associated with Cobram Estate but their products are both delicious and easy to find in your local supermarket.

  • 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large lemon

Use a sharp knife to remove the zest from your lemon in large strips. If necessary, scrape off any remaining white pith prior to using.

Place your olive oil in a small saucepan over very low heat. When slightly warmed, add in the prepared lemon zest. Allow to steep for around 10 minutes, then remove from the heat and allow to cool. Place your oil and lemon zest into a sterilised bottle or jar. Cap well, and store in a cool, dark place.

Notes: the zest will continue to infuse more lemon flavour into your oil with time. When it gets to a level that suits you, remove it as required. You can also use this method to steep other flavours into your olive oil, such as chilli, vanilla beans (great with fish) or herbs. Just make sure that you don’t allow the oil to overheat (smoke) or simmer as you’ll destroy it’s flavour and quality.

Grilled Flatbread with Mint, Honey and Paprika

  • 2 large wholemeal pitta breads (substitute with lavash, mountain bread or any other flatbread)
  • 2 tsp dried mint
  • 2 tsp smoked paprika
  • 2 tsp dried chilli flakes
  • 2 tbsp crushed walnuts
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Honey, to drizzle
  • Optional: 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan
  • Optional: fresh mint, chopped, and goat’s feta

Preheat your oven to 180 degrees C (360 degrees f). Place your flatbread directly on the bars of your oven rack to toast. When crisp but not browned, drizzle over some honey and then top with your herbs, spices, walnuts and Parmesan, if using. Place back into the oven and toast until your bread is brown and crisped, the nuts look toasted and your spices have browned and formed a gloriously sticky coating with the honey and Parmesan.

If you’re going to eat this flatbread on it’s own, I’d recommend scattering over some fresh mint and smearing it with fresh goat’s feta. You could even drizzle over some pomegranate molasses. But for a simple and delicious option, just break it into pieces and eat whilst still warm with lashings of hummus.

Notes: Feel free to use this seasoning on Turkish bread or sliced ciabatta. Grill until the exterior is crisp and browned, then dip into your spiced hummus. Yum. The flatbread is also wonderful topped with both hummus and a generous spoonful of kale salad for lunch or a satisfying snack.

About Radishes:

Today was the first day that I’ve eaten radishes in about three years, and I bought them primarily because of their beautiful crimson hue. However, I did a bit of research and they’re actually very good for you. Eat some with your hummus, and enjoy the crisp heat of yet another vegetable that not only looks good, but is great for your body. God is definitely the master designer.

  • Radishes contain only 16 calories (0.0669kj) per 100g. So you can pretty much eat them til you explode and you’ll still be thin. Just… exploded.
  • They’re a rich source of antioxidants including eaxanthin, lutein and beta carotene whilst also being packed with dietary fibre.
  • Fresh radishes provide 15 mg or 25% of the daily recommended dietary intake of vitamin C per 100g.  Vitamin C is a powerful water soluble antioxidant required by the body for synthesis of collagen. It also fights free radicals which in turn works towards the prevention of cancer and inflammation whilst generally boosting immunity.
  • Radishes also contain folate, vitamin B6, riboflavin, thiamin and minerals such as iron, magnesium, copper and calcium.

“Eating pungent radish and drinking hot tea makes the starved doctors beg on their knees”

– Chinese proverb [*Please note: by including this proverb I am not condoning nor encouraging the starvation of any medical practitioners, via the purchase of radishes or otherwise]

banana bread. two ways

Banana bread is a funny thing. Yes, it’s shaped like a loaf and yes, it contains bananas, but:

  1. being loaf-shaped doesn’t make you bread (take that, Nyan cat!) and;
  2. the addition of fruit doesn’t automatically make something healthy.

Now I’m not going to get on your back and say that you shouldn’t eat banana bread (cake!). I still intend to, both now and in future, and with it’s included fruit and nuts it’s definitely a more nutritious option than chocolate mud cake, pavlova or brownies (which, for the record, I also still eat… alongside occasional bowls of salty hot chips). However, there’s room for healthy food in the equation as well, especially when it contains superfoods that I know are good for the heart, brain and metabolism. One of those foods is chia seeds, a tiny little grain that’s gradually working it’s way into many of my developing recipes. Each little seed is packed with omega 3 & 6, antioxidants, protein and dietary fibre, all of which work with your body to keep you healthy, satisfied and energised. I love both white and black chia seeds, especially in their crunchy raw state, tossed into a muesli slice, a bowl of cereal or thick Greek yoghurt. They’re a little like a milder version of poppy seeds, but just much better for you.

So what’s all this seed business got to do with banana bread? Well, I guess what I’m getting at is that I’ve been experimenting… adding and subtracting, playing around with ingredients and transforming my original recipe into a wheat-free, refined sugar free and nutrient packed loaf of goodness. Instead of butter, milk and sugar, I’ve added chia gel, pureed apple and agave syrup, all of which add moisture and sweetness that you’d never know was good for you.

So, as per the recipe title, here’s banana bread two ways. My traditional recipe is more like a cake, deliciously moist and dense with brown sugar. It’s perfect for those occasions when you want something a little more indulgent that still vaguely falls under the category of ‘better for you’ (than a chocolate brownie, I guess). Recipe two is the healthy option, packed full of ingredients that are great for your heart, brain and waistline. Eat it to your heart’s content, whenever you want, knowing that you are doing your body good. I even eat it for breakfast, warmed, then drizzled with almond butter and honey. So, so good.

Recipe 1: Traditional Banana Bread with Walnuts and Raisins

This recipe is a variation of an original from my mum’s old Marks & SpencerGood Home Baking‘ cookbook (1983). It’s richly moist and loaded with raisins, nuts, brown sugar and cinnamon. It’s so good that it has become somewhat famous amongst my husband’s friends, who send in their baking ‘requests’ for it whilst suggesting that I set up a stall on the roadside. Ha, yeah. Anyway, try it… you won’t be disappointed.

  • 225g self-raising flour
  • a pinch of salt
  • 100g soft unsalted butter, cubed
  • 175g brown sugar
  • 50g raisins
  • 75g halved walnuts
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 4 very ripe medium bananas, mashed
  • 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 3 tbsp whole milk
  • 1 tbsp demerara sugar

Preheat your oven to 160 degrees C (325 degrees f). Line the bottom of a 1kg non-stick loaf pan with baking paper, then set aside. Place your flour and butter in a bowl, then rub it in until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in your sugar, cinnamon, raisins and walnuts. Mix your mashed bananas with the vanilla extract and milk, then add to your mixture. Mix well.

Turn the mixture into your prepared, lined tin and smooth the top with the back of a spoon (I usually bang my tin on the bench a couple of times to expel any air bubbles). Sprinkle with demerara sugar & more cinnamon. Place your tin on a baking tray, then bake for 90 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes back with just a few moist crumbs attached.

Leave to cool in the tin. Serve on it’s own, with butter, or thickly sliced and warmed with vanilla icecream for dessert. My all time favourite is a thick slice, toasted to slight crispness with a generous dollop of mascarpone, a drizzle of warmed honey and a sprinkling of toasted almonds. Yum.

Recipe 2: Wheat-free, refined-sugar-free Chia Banana Bread with Walnuts and Medjool Dates

  • 1 1/4 cups wholemeal spelt flour
  • 1/2 cup whole rolled oats
  • 3/4 cup walnuts
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp baking soda (bicarbonate of soda)
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 cup agave syrup
  • 1/2 cup white chia gel (recipe to follow)
  • 1/4 cup stewed pureed unsweetened apple (peel & chop 2-3 apples, cook in a splash of water until soft, then puree with a stick blender)
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 4 very ripe medium bananas, mashed
  • 5 medjool dates, pitted and coarsely chopped (sprinkle them with a bit of spelt flour, then toss, to ensure that the pieces remain separated when mixed)

Preheat your oven to 160 degrees C (325 degrees f). Line the bottom of a 1kg non-stick loaf pan with baking paper, then set aside. Place your dry ingredients in a large bowl. Mix them well, then make a well in the centre. In a separate bowl, mix together your wet ingredients, ensuring that the chia seeds are evenly distributed. Add your wet ingredients to the dry, then mix well.

Turn your mixture into your prepared, lined tin, and smooth the surface with a spoon. I usually sprinkle over some cinnamon and rolled oats, or perhaps some crumbled walnuts, before tapping the tin on a flat surface to expel any trapped air bubbles. Place your tin on a baking tray, then bake for 90 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out with only a few moist crumbs attached.

Leave to cool in the tin. My favourite way to eat this banana bread is freshly sliced with a glass of milk. It’s a completely guilt free, deliciously filling breakfast or snack that you can prepare on the weekend then eat the whole week through. My favourite serving suggestion is to warm a thick slice, slather it with almond butter, a drizzle of honey and more sliced fresh banana. Delicious.

Making Chia Gel:

Chia gel is basically raw chia seeds soaked in your chosen liquid. The soaking process softens the grain whilst transforming it into a ‘gel’ that can be used as an egg replacer or substitute for butter or milk in many vegan recipes (it contains similar binding qualities to egg whites whilst also adding moisture. Use 1 tbsp of gel for 1 egg). I’ve used pure white chia gel in the recipe above (with water), but you can also flavour your chia gel by soaking the seeds in apple juice, almond milk or for savoury dishes, vegetable stock.

  • Basic ratio: 2 tbsp chia seeds (white or black) to one cup of water.

Just add your chia seeds to the liquid in a jug or bowl. Whisk with a fork to separate the seeds then leave to soak for 10 minutes. Whisk the partially soaked seeds again, separating any clumps of seeds that may have fallen to the bottom. I usually make a big batch and place my covered jug in the fridge overnight for further soaking. Any leftover chia gel will keep for up to a week in the fridge.

Notes:

  • Either loaf of banana bread will keep well for 2-3 days unrefrigerated, or up to a week in the fridge. If you want to extend the life of your banana bread you can wrap it well in plastic film after cooling, and freeze it for up to three months.
  • For maximum flavour, use very ripe bananas. Don’t worry if they’re a little mushy, overripe, bruised or blackened – the flavour will mellow to moist banana-scented sweetness when added to the other ingredients.
  • Ripe bananas can be refrigerated for a few days or frozen ahead to be used for banana bread. The skin will turn black, but that doesn’t affect the quality of the fruit when it’s to be used in baked goods. The freezing process will actually intensify the flavour, and whilst the defrosted fruit may seem to have an altered texture this will be undetectable in your finished product.
  • Defrost frozen bananas in the fridge for at least 12 hours prior to mashing them for the recipe as stated.
  • If you can’t wait to make some banana bread but your bananas aren’t ripe enough, don’t worry. As long as they are mashable (e.g. not green) you can still use them and get a good result. I usually add an extra banana and a splash of agave syrup (maybe equivalent to one tsp) to the mix to compensate for slightly less moisture and depth of flavour in the just-ripe bananas.
  • If you have 12-24 hours you can also speed the ripening process of your bananas by placing them in a brown paper bag and closing it tightly. The fruit emits ethylene gas during the ripening process and sealing them in an enclosed space will speed up the process by trapping the gas.
  • Feel free to substitute wholemeal, spelt or gluten-free flours (of equal quantity) in either of the above recipes. Just make sure you add raising agent to the first recipe if you are not using the stated self-raising flour (1 1/2 tsp baking powder and 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda should do the trick).
  • Play around with fruit, nuts, spices and seeds in both recipes. My standby additions are sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds or pepitas, millet seeds (beautifully crunchy and textural… not just for the birds), pecans, chunks (not chips) of dark chocolate, blueberries (frozen are fine, don’t bother defrosting first), dried cranberries and medjool dates (much nicer than regular dried dates). Interchangeable spices are cinnamon, a touch of nutmeg or even some ground cardamom. Just go with the rule that ‘less is more’ until you have tested the spice’s intensity.

kale salad with chilli, garlic and parmesan

It’s very early on a Sunday morning, and instead of sleeping I’m wide awake thinking about the nutritional qualities of kale. Is that bad? I guess that’s a subjective question but in my case, probably, considering that I’ve lost my sole opportunity for a weekly sleep-in. Instead, I’ve abandoned my husband to sit in the half-light with a bowl of leafy green, lemon-drenched brassica. As I crunch through mounds of deliciousness, I’m pretty sure that I resemble an excited meerkat that just found a fat scorpion. Mmm, scorpion. Crunch, crunch, crunch.

Okay, so maybe that was a bad parallel. Especially for those of you who are strongly adverse to kale like Michael Procopio, who’s actually penned a poem to express his loathing towards the leafy green. And he’s not alone: check out here and here. But for every kale hater, there’s also an equally committed lover, like the delightful Sarah Jane whose blog, I Love Kale, is a tribute to the adaptability of this delicious vegetable. In any case, it’s beautiful. Isn’t it?

By now you’ve probably concluded that I’m in the ‘love’ camp, and you’re absolutely right. Mostly because I coat my kale in a deliciously cheesy, spiced lemon dressing before topping it with a crumbling of toasted nuts. If I’m extra hungry, I’ll also add in some seasoned red quinoa or a soft poached egg, letting the warm yolk drizzle softly into mounds of chilli-flecked green. Absolutely delicious, moreish and 100% good for you.

Well, if you’re now interested enough to find out more about the benefits of kale, just read on below. Underneath, you’ll also find my lemon and chilli spiced kale recipe, with suggestions for adaptation. As with all my recipes, I’d encourage you to add, subtract or change things around to suit your personal taste. Don’t like cheese? Try adding some tahini, more crushed nuts or nutritional yeast. Want some meat? Read on below for suggestions. As long as you get some kale into your diet, I’m happy… even if your version only resembles 1% of the original (that 1% being kale, not cheese, smart-ass).

Your body will thank you. Here’s why:

  • Kale is one of the newly coined superfoods of the plant world, a category that also includes grains like quinoa, berries like acai (ah-sigh-hee) and seeds like chia. Superfoods, in a nutshell, are plants that are high in organic phytonutrients, or components that are highly beneficial to physical health.
  • Phytonutrients in kale include beta carotene, vitamin K, vitamin C, lutein, zeaxanthin and calcium, all of which assist in the maintenance of heart and bone health whilst aiding digestion, vision (by preventing macular degeneration) and energy production.
  • Along with other brassica vegetables (such as broccoli and cabbage) kale is also a source of indole-3-carbinol, a chemical which boosts DNA repair in cells and appears to block the growth of cancer cells.
  • Sulforaphane is another chemical within kale that has potent anti-cancer properties. To enhance levels, eat your kale raw, preferably blended, minced or chopped. If you prefer cooked greens, minimise nutrient loss by steaming or stir-frying (if you’re one of those people who boil vegetables to a shade of grey, at least drink the cooking water as that’s where all the nutrients have gone).

Kale Salad with Chilli, Garlic and Parmesan:

Serves approx. 2 for a main meal, 4 as a side dish.

  • 1 bunch kale (equivalent of about 4 cups, washed & chopped)
  • 1/2 garlic clove
  • 50ml extra virgin olive oil
  • freshly squeezed juice of one lemon (equivalent to 1/4 cup or ~50ml of juice)
  • chilli flakes, to taste (I use about 1 teaspoon)
  • a large pinch of sea salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan or Pecorino cheese (or for vegans, substitute a couple of tablespoons of nutritional yeast)
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup toasted walnuts, almonds, pine nuts or a combination of all three (I add closer to 1/2 cup but adjust to your requirements)

Thoroughly wash and dry your kale leaves. Remove the tough, fibrous lower stalk and central vein from the larger leaves (retain the inner stalks from the more tender heart) then shred into 0.5cm thick ribbons. Place in a large bowl.

Using a mortar and pestle, pound your garlic clove with the chilli flakes and sea salt into a thick paste. Transfer it into a small bowl and add your lemon juice, olive oil, ground pepper and cheese. Whisk the dressing to combine, then pour it over the kale. Toss very well with salad servers or if it’s a meal for one, it might be easier to use your hands (I do!). Ensure that each leaf is thoroughly coated in dressing, then allow your kale leaves to sit for at least ten minutes to ensure that the lemon juice & olive oil will tenderise and remove some bitterness from the leaves.

Pound half of your toasted nuts in a mortar and pestle to a coarse ground. Chop the rest coarsely, then mix most of the nuts into your salad, reserving a sprinkling for garnish. Serve in bowls or on a large plate, scattered with your reserved nuts, a splash more extra virgin oil, a sprinkling of extra chilli flakes and/or extra Parmesan to taste.

Notes:

This salad lends itself very well to adaptations for both the vegetarian and carnivorous palate. Play around with things as suits your palate but some of my favourites are as follows:

  • If you’re not a fan of cheese, this salad works really well with some tahini or almond butter mixed into the dressing. Try a tablespoon to start then adjust to taste.
  • If you’ve tried this salad and you find that your kale is still bitter and tough, the problem is that the leaves have not been sufficiently ‘cooked’ in the acid of the dressing. I’d suggest trying again, but rubbing the dressing in with your hands before allowing it to sit for at least ten minutes. Hopefully this will do the trick!
  • Add some crumbled fried bacon pieces to your salad for the meat-lovers in your family, or serve with some seasoned grilled chicken or crispy-skinned salmon that’s still soft, moist and pink in the centre.
  • Place a generous handful of kale salad on some buttered, toasted rye or wholegrain bread, then serve topped with a soft-poached egg for breakfast.
  • Toast some turkish bread, slather it with hummus (preferably home-made, it’s easy!) then top with a spoonful of kale salad. The lemon and tahini, wrapped in the smoothness of the hummus pairs well with the garlicky, chilli-spiked greens.
  • Along the same thread, you can also add some kale salad into a pita-bread or lavash wrap with hummus, canned tuna and/or chickpeas. Yum.
  • If you don’t like nuts or can’t eat them, then this salad works equally well with croutons for extra crunch. Just place some day-old, crumbled wholegrain or French bread in the oven with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of pepper, then bake until golden. Top your salad, then eat!
  • To bulk out your kale salad in wheat-free fashion, just cook 1/2 cup quinoa in 1 cup of water (1:2 ratio) or vegetable stock then mix through your salad. I sometimes omit the cheese in this variation, then add in some pepitas and raisins (or chopped medjool dates) for extra colour, sweetness and crunch.

making pesto

I’m sitting on the couch, wrapped tightly in a blanket as a storm brews in the grey sky outside. Raindrops splatter against muddied glass and I watch them fall, flickering in shadow to the ground below. My eyes are also flickering as I gaze over my hand-written recipe notes; mostly due to lack of sleep, a banging headache and post-jovial fatigue from the Saturday past.

Ah, Saturday. I had all good intentions of writing a huge post this weekend, full of recipes for chocolate and minted berry pavlova, Moroccan carrot salad, honey balsamic roast beetroot with goat’s cheese, cumin-spiced pumpkin dip and hazelnut praline. Don’t get me wrong, all were successfully created, tested and consumed with slices of herbed roast beef, roast potatoes and fresh Turkish bread.  The only problem is… well, we washed everything down with quality Pinot Noir and great conversation, and I was so engrossed in spending time with everyone that I couldn’t be bothered with photographs. Especially when I was dragged upstairs for a never-ending game of Cowboys and Aliens before being ‘pecked’ in the stairwell by a plastic bird on a stick.

Anyway, back to today’s post. Due to lack of photography I’ve decided to leave the above-mentioned recipes for another time when I can provide a complete, methodical post, but be assured, all recipes have been dutifully scribbled onto blotched paper with accurate ingredient lists for later use. Today’s post however, is for a staple in our household cuisine: the incredibly versatile, herbaceous and fragrant Pesto. Though there are arguably endless ways that you can create a tasty mix, my favourites in recent months have been 1) rocket, basil and pine nut, and 2) parsley, walnut and lemon zest (with or without chilli flakes). The latter was invented when I had a glut of parsley in the fridge, collected on a recent trip to the farmer’s market. It ended up being a delicious combination, bright green in colour and wonderful when drizzled over freshly-toasted, blackened ciabatta.

Below you’ll find recipes for both of my concoctions in quantities that suit my family, however if you want to change, substitute or add more of anything, then definitely do so! One of the benefits of pesto is that it’s an extremely forgiving condiment. You can substitute almost any soft, fragrant herb or greenery with different nuts, chilli, citrus, oil or roasted vegetables (like semi-dried tomatoes or roasted capsicum) and  it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll have a jar of deliciousness in under ten minutes. Just be careful with the garlic, and maintain the rule that it’s always better to add less of a strong flavour from the outset rather than trying to frantically save a garlic-soaked pesto with leftover chopped spinach from the vegetable box.

Rocket and Basil Pesto

Makes approx one and a half cups

  • 2 cups tightly packed rocket leaves (arugula)
  • 2 cups tightly packed basil leaves
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil (make sure you have a little more on hand, if required)
  • 3 tbsp toasted pine nuts
  • 2 tbsp toasted cashews
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1-2 minced garlic cloves
  • sea salt to taste
  • optional: lemon zest, to taste

Wash and thoroughly dry your rocket and basil leaves. Roughly chop and place in a food processor bowl. Add your garlic (I’d recommend adding one clove initially, as you can always add more later if required), olive oil, lemon zest (if using), 2 tbsp pine nuts and 1 tbsp cashews. Pulse until your oil begins to colour and ingredients are mixed thoroughly. Add in your Parmesan and pulse to combine – if the mixture seems a little thick for your liking, add more oil. Once at your desired consistency, taste and season with salt, if necessary.

Mix through extra whole nuts (I usually roughly chop my remaining cashews) then seal your mixture in a sterilised jar. If the solids in your mix are exposed at the top I’d recommend covering your pesto with a thin layer of fresh olive oil to preserve colour and freshness (any greenery exposed to the air with oxidise and darken). Your finished pesto will keep refrigerated for a couple of weeks, or if required, it can also be frozen (*see ‘notes’, below).

Parsley, Walnut and Lemon Pesto

Makes roughly one cup.

  • 2 cups tightly packed flat-leaf (Italian) parsley
  • 3/4 cup toasted walnuts, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1-2 minced garlic cloves
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
  • 2 tbsp lemon zest
  • sea salt

Wash and thoroughly dry your parsley leaves. Roughly chop and then place them in a food processor bowl with 1/2 cup walnuts, olive oil, garlic to taste, lemon juice and zest. Pulse until thoroughly combined, and if too thick for your liking, add more oil until the mixture reaches your desired consistency. Taste and season with salt, if necessary.

Add in your remaining 1/4 cup walnuts and stir to combine. Seal in a sterilised jar. As per basil pesto, mixture will keep in a sealed jar for a couple of weeks (*see ‘notes’ below for instructions on freezing).

Notes:

  • ‘Pesto’ is an abbreviation of ‘pestello’ in Italian where the recipe first originated. It means ‘pestle’, hinting back to traditional mortar-and-pestle preparation of the condiment in old Italian kitchens. You can still prepare small-batch pesto in a mortar and pestle if desired. It brings a beautiful rustic quality to the dish, and is great for the biceps (actually, maybe I should stick with this method more regularly).
  • High quality oil is non-negotiable in pesto. I usually use extra virgin olive oil (my favourite oil at the moment is Australian Reserve Picual by Cobram Estate) but you can also substitute high quality macadamia oil, walnut oil or another oil of your choice that will compliment your chosen ingredients. I sometimes add a splash of walnut oil to the Parsley, Walnut and Lemon pesto which is deliciously fragrant.
  • Great herbs/leaves for substitution in pesto include: spinach, rocket (arugula), coriander (cilantro), parsley, nettle and the traditional basil.
  • If you’re using a stronger herb, such as coriander, use parsley as an extender to diffuse the flavour. It has a mellow, delicious flavour that will compliment rather than clashing.
  • Good quality cheese is also a must for flavoursome pesto. Great substitutes for parmesan include: asagio, romano.
  • Nut substitutes: my favourites are almonds (preferably blanched), walnuts, pine nuts and macadamias.
  • If you love the flavour of garlic but find pure cloves to be too strong, use garlic chives. They add a bright green, fragrant hint of garlic without being overpowering. You can also experiment with green shallots if desired.
  • *freezing: mixture can be frozen in ice-cube trays for up to three months. Just pop out a cube or two and defrost for spreading, or add straight to hot pasta as required.

My favourite uses for Pesto:

  • I stuff field mushrooms with a mixture of breadcrumbs, a generous amount of pesto, crispy bacon & semi-dried tomatoes. Oven bake for 15-20 minutes (add a mixture of parmesan & mozzarella to the top for the last 5-10 minutes) at 180 degrees C for a deliciously juicy addition to any meal.
  • Add it to grilled cheese sandwiches. My favourite is Rocket and Basil Pesto, mozzarella, sliced mushrooms, roma tomatoes and baby spinach on Turkish bread, grilled in the oven (or in a sandwich toaster, but I don’t have one) until the outside is crisp, the inside is molten and fragrant with basil oil and the mushrooms are tender. If I’m feeling lazy, homemade pesto with cheese is just as good!
  • Add two generous tablespoons of pesto to hot al dente pasta with some of the cooking water then mix til well coated. Add in some roasted cherry tomatoes for a delicious dinner.
  • Melt some pesto over the top of your roasted or steamed vegetables
  • Spread it on grilled ciabatta for a tasty bread entree, topped with roasted cherry tomatoes (or alternatively, like garlic bread, spread pesto between the half-cut slices in a baguette, wrap in foil and toast it in a hot oven).
  • Add it on top of your pizza. I particularly like pesto, roasted pumpkin, bacon and pine nuts with fresh goat’s feta and rocket.

lemon and sweet lime curd

Last week, a friend of mine gave me a bag filled with yellow citrus. The small golden orbs were a little unusual, puzzling me with the fragrance of a lemon whilst resembling more of an overripe lime. After a bit of discussion I was told that they were actually Palestinian sweet limes, which are native to both India & Mexico. They’re naturally lower in acid than their bright-green cousins and typically display a blushed yellow hue.

So, whats a cook to do when given a glut of sweet limes? Well, at first, I ate one. Juicy and sweet by nature, this variety of lime tastes a bit like a cross between a lime and an orange whilst having the scent of a lemon. It’s both unusual and delicious.

This is a mingle of both Tahitian & Palestinian sweet limes but the latter are the yellowish fruit (both central & on the right)

Well, after one week I’m now pleased to say that I’ve used sweet limes in a variety of ways, from dressing a range of salads to making a gin cocktail featuring herbs and my favourite spirit, Hendrick‘s dry gin (if you haven’t tried it, get some!! It’s got notes of cucumber, rose & juniper all wrapped up in syrupy gin deliciousness. Definitely recommended). I’ve also used to make two varieties of curd: 1) lemon with both sweet and Tahitian limes and 2) ruby red grapefruit and sweet lime. Both are delicious, but the lemon variety was sweetly satisfying with a Tahitian lime kick.

The recipe below is for the lemon & sweet lime curd, but I’d encourage you to try the grapefruit variation by swapping the lemon & Tahitian lime for 2 ruby red grapefruit (zest & juice). You’ll also need to reduce the sugar a little to compensate for the reduced amount of acid, and whilst I won’t give you an exact amount I’ll encourage you to start at 120g then add & taste as you go. If you can’t get hold of sweet limes, feel free to use the base recipe and substitute any citrus fruit you desire. They’ll all be delicious, and perfect with everything from pavlova to toast and tea.

Lemon & Sweet Lime Curd

Makes roughly 1 litre (4 metric cups)

  • 440g (2 cups) sugar
  • 250g unsalted butter, cubed
  • 3 eggs, lightly whisked
  • 5-6 egg yolks
  • zest & juice of 1 lemon*
  • zest & juice of 5 sweet limes*
  • zest & juice of 2 Tahitian limes*

Method:

Wash and dry your citrus fruit, then finely grate the rind.  Juice fruit and reserve the equivalent of 250mls (1 cup) of juice. You can either strain your juice at this stage, or just remove the pips whilst reserving any fruit pulp (I like the latter option, probably because I just like rustic home-cooked food!).

Whisk your eggs, egg yolks & sugar until smooth, then place your pan over a low heat. Add the juice, rind, sugar & butter and keep whisking until the mixture thickens.  You’re looking for it to be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon… for me it takes around 20 minutes. Do not allow the mixture to boil or the eggs will curdle & you’ll be left with a congealed, eggy mess!

Once your mixture has thickened, take it off the heat & allow it to cool a little. Pour it into your pre-prepared hot sterilised jars (you will need four 250ml/1 cup jars, see ‘notes’). Seal and invert jars for 2 minutes before turning them upright and allowing them to cool.

Notes:

*substitute with your choice of citrus fruit. You will need juice equivalent to 250mls (1 cup). Make sure you adjust levels of sugar according to the acidity of your chosen fruit.

Preparing your Jars: Taste has a great tutorial on how to sterilise jars for your jams, chutneys & preserves. See link here.

Sealed curd will keep in the fridge for 2-3 weeks. You can also put your curd into an airtight, sealed container and freeze it for up to three months. Whisk again upon defrosting.

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