heirloom tomato salad

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Supermarket tomatoes. What do these two words mean to you? Ease of purchase, uniform redness, blemish-free shiny skins and all-year-round availability? Yes, these would be the positives. But hopefully it won’t be a surprise to you to find out that tomatoes aren’t supposed to be like this.

In their natural state, tomatoes are seasonal, perishable and… well, occasionally ugly. But as large supermarket chains and their practices have started to dominate the retail market, growers have started to conform to their requests for uniform, disease-resistant fruit that can be stored and sold all-year round. Yes, it sounds practical. Convenient, even. But it’s highly unnatural.

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So, in case you’re interested, to follow is a bit of a back story on how supermarket tomatoes have moved from A (being natural agriculture) to B (the tennis ball fruit in today’s supermarkets). Keep in mind that this is my abbreviated version of events, so if you’d like to read more take a look at my references below.

Here goes: about 70 years ago, small green grocers started folding up as large supermarket chains and their cost-cutting ability started to dominate the fresh food market. Supermarkets had the ability to import international produce or buy transported produce from across the country, rather than sourcing fresh stock from local independent farmers. Over time, consumers got used to produce being available almost all-year round, consequentially losing all concept of the natural ‘seasonal’ nature of fresh produce. Supermarkets moved to further meet this demand whilst also trying to minimise transport costs. This led to the practice of cold-storing bulk amounts of fresh produce for gradual sale according to market demand. knife

In its basic form, cold storage is a beneficial form of refrigeration that involves chilling fresh produce as soon as possible after harvest, preserving nutrients and preventing deterioration. However, most supermarkets go a few steps further. As far as I understand, most large supermarket chains buy fruit and vegetables before they’ve reached full ripeness (as mature-but-green fruits and vegetables are usually more resilient during transportation), chilling them as soon as possible after harvest, then storing them in a controlled-atmosphere area (with lower levels of oxygen and higher levels of carbon dioxide than normal air) to prohibit deterioration.

Some supermarkets also use a chemical called 1-methylcyclopropene (1-MCP) to block the biochemical changes that occur as a fruit naturally ripens and matures. This extends the shelf life of the fruit even longer, but tests have shown that when the fruit eventually ‘ripens’, it has less flavour and often remains partially hard (yep, that’s why your last lot of supermarket nectarines tasted like crap). Oh, and just in case the above process isn’t enough, most units also spray the produce with some additional fungicide to prohibit the growth of mold. Ah, lovely.

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So, back to specifics: why do today’s supermarket tomatoes taste so terrible? It’s not just because they’re picked in an unripe state before being cold-stored for 4-5 calendar weeks. They’ve also been genetically modified through a process called heterosis to increase uniformity (in shape and colour), product yield and disease resistance. Unfortunately, these benefits were gained whilst sacrificing nutritional quality (in particular, carotenoids) and the essential sugars that provide a tomato’s characteristically sweet taste. But hey, you can buy them all year round, right? And if you drop them, they bounce.

Sadly, as these resilient and aesthetically beautiful tomatoes began to monopolize the commercial fresh food market, many non-genetically modified heritage varieties were lost to the general public (along with many small, family farms that were growing them). But here’s the good news: throughout the years, some small heroic producers, backyard gardeners and boutique seed collectors continued to grow these varieties, whilst drying and storing seed samples from tomatoes and other rare heritage produce. As interest in heirloom produce has blossomed, many of these people have started selling seeds in a not-for-profit manner via the internet. Excitingly, there are even some independent growers who are starting to produce heirloom vegetables for public sale at local farmer’s markets.

If you’re a Perth dweller like I am, I’d encourage you to visit the Subiaco Farmer’s Market (more details under ‘Retailers’ below), a small project run by like-minded Western Australians who sell organic and bio-dynamic fresh produce that’s been sustainably farmed. The stallholders at this market are the only local stockists of organic heirloom seedlings and selected heirloom fresh produce that I’ve found in Perth, so I’m definitely making every effort to support them. If you live locally, I’d encourage you to do the same. If you don’t live in Perth and you’re having difficulty sourcing organic, heirloom produce from a local grocer, I’d encourage you to prepare a patch of soil, get your credit card ready and check out the list of online seed retailers below. Yes, it will take a little longer, but there’s nothing like eating freshly harvested produce from your own garden. That’s agriculture, the way nature intended.

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Below, you’ll find a very simple recipe for an heirloom tomato salad. It’s back-to-basics, rustic cooking (or rather, ‘seasoning’) that’s intended to accentuate the beautiful quality of the hero ingredient, rather than complicate it. Though I’ve included some rough measurements, everything should be adapted to your personal taste and the quality of your produce. For this reason, I’d suggest that you taste one of your tomatoes prior to beginning the process. Contemplate its sweetness, juiciness and intensity. Does it need extra salt? Some additional complexity? Once you’ve decided, add extra ingredients to taste.

I’d suggest that you eat this salad on a warm sunny day with a glass of white wine, a good friend and some buttered crusty French bread to mop up the sweet tomato juices. Deliciously good food, heirloom style (you’ll never be satisfied with a supermarket tomato again).

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Heirloom Tomato Salad

  • 1kg mixed heirloom tomatoes, washed and sliced (I usually do a mixture of wedges and horizontal slices)
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tbs red wine vinegar
  • 1 tbs balsamic vinegar
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, washed and torn roughly into pieces
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled
  • a pinch of caster sugar, if your tomatoes aren’t sweet enough
  • sea salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup fresh Parmesan, shaved

Place your olive oil into a medium pan over low heat. Add in your garlic clove, and saute gently until the clove becomes translucent and the oil is fragrant. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Place into a small bowl and whisk in your vinegars, the caster sugar and some sea salt.

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Place your mixed tomatoes into a large bowl. Add in the basil leaves and some of the shaved parmesan (reserve some for garnish). Drizzle over your dressing, making sure that the garlic clove doesn’t fall into the salad. Mix well, then season to taste. Place onto a serving platter and garnish with your remaining shaved Parmesan.

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Notes:

  • Heirloom tomatoes are generally heritage varieties that are open-pollinated and grown from seed. Unlike hybrid varieties, their seeds can be collected and replanted year after year, with the same genetic result (hybrid tomatoes will often produce different plants from seed, due to having a combination of ‘genes’ and both dominant and recessive traits).
  • In general, heirloom tomatoes are less disease resistant and may be ‘uglier’ or prone to cracking. If you’re wondering why my tomatoes above are so pretty, well… yep, you picked it. They’re not all heirloom (as unfortunately, I couldn’t find enough). The heirloom varieties you’ll see are Dr Carolyn yellow cherry tomatoes, some Green Zebras and Purple Russians. There are also commercially available Italian Roma tomatoes from my local green grocer, and a singular red cherry tomato from my mother-in-law’s house (thanks Bev! My mother also grows fresh, organic apples, which get dropped off at my house during the fruiting season. You’ll see them on this blog eventually… I am a lucky daughter).
  • You can easily collect seeds from any heirloom tomato you buy. Just squeeze the seeds from 3 or 4 small tomatoes into a jar or small container. Add in about the same quantity of water, then allow the mixture to ferment for 3-5 days. It will probably smell, but allow it to continue decomposing until a thin layer of mold has formed on the top. At this point, pour the mixture into a fine sieve, and wash your seeds out under the tap. Rub them well, until they’re clean and free of any tomato flesh or other residue. Spread them out on a paper towel to completely dry. Your seeds are now ready to plant.
  • This salad is also beautiful with baby buffalo mozzarella or soft bocconcini in place of Parmesan. If using either of these cheeses, I’ll usually let the cheese marinate in the dressing with some additional lemon zest for at least 20 minutes prior to mixing and serving.
  • Though this salad can be kept overnight, I find that the acid in the dressing changes the texture of the tomatoes quite quickly. Your tomatoes will also oxidise (react with oxygen) once cut, losing vitamins C, A and other essential nutrients such as calcium, potassium, sodium and phosphorus. For both of these reasons I’d encourage you to try and consume your tomato salad on the day that it’s made.
  • Basil pairs beautifully with tomato in this salad, however if you’d like to mix things up a little, other herbs that complement beautifully include sliced chives, garlic chives, fresh Italian parsley or a little (and I mean, a little… trust me, it’s a strong flavour) fresh oregano.

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Heirloom Tomato and other Heritage Seed Retailers:

  • Subiaco Farmer’s Market: This Saturday market at Subiaco Primary School (271 Bagot Road, Subiaco in Western Australia) is the only fresh food market I know of that stocks organic, heirloom vegetable seedlings and selected fresh produce. I’d encourage you to support these small producers if you live in my home town; your health and taste buds will definitely thank you.
  • The Lost Seed: A beautiful, Australian seed retailer that aims to make non-hybrid, non-genetically modified, open-pollinated, rare and heirloom seeds available to the public everywhere. Kerryn Martin, the company proprietor, says that it’s her passion to restore the availability of quality and nutritious produce that ‘…the industrialised world has taken away’ in the most natural way possible. I’m in full support of that!
  • The Digger’s Club: An Australian gardener’s club that was established in 1978 to preserve old-world varieties of fruits and vegetables that were being dropped from mainstream supermarket shelves. They sell both organic seeds and beautiful live, organically-grown plants that can be mailed Australia-wide. This is my favourite garden store, period.
  • Gary Ibsen’s Tomato Fest: This is an American-based company that specialises in the sale of heirloom and heritage tomato seed varieties.
  • Seed Saver’s Exchange: Another American non-profit organisation that’s dedicated to collecting, saving and sharing heirloom, heritage and rare seeds.
  • Beautanicals: Tomato Seeds Australia: an Australian heirloom tomato seed supplier. Yay for local resources.

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References (if you’d like to read more):

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wholemeal mince pies with spiced whisky fruits

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It’s 2:42am on December 25th, 2012: officially Christmas day. You’re probably wondering why I’m up so early. Well… it’s not because I’m excited about raiding Christmas stockings or unwrapping illusive presents. It’s more to do with the fact that I haven’t yet been to bed, and I need to stay awake to let my volleyball-playing husband through our apartment block’s security gate. Sigh. One of the hazards of letting your husband put his keys into your handbag is that sometimes he (or you) forgets to take them out. In this case, though, it was my fault. I forgot to leave them on our friend’s kitchen counter when leaving a Christmas eve party in a post-jovial state of fatigue.

So, now you know why I’m sleepily writing a recipe for mince pies after 2 o’clock on Christmas morning. In all honesty, it’s rather nice… the air outside is cool, still and permeated by the sound of chirping crickets. Very occasionally, a car drives down the highway, leaving a hum in it’s wake. Yep, I like the night hours. Even though I know I’ll be sleepy the next day.

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Anyway, back to the mince pies. I’m actually eating one as I type, the evidence of which is a buttery crumb that’s embedded itself in my keyboard. I’m eating more for analytical value than out of hunger, and consequentially, each ‘chew’ is quite contemplative. First you get the crisp crunch of buttery pastry, followed by the sweet plumpness of whisky-infused apricots, the chew of raisins and some soft notes of spice and ginger. Delicious, at any time of the day or night.

Growing up, I was exposed to many Christmas traditions, both in the northern and southern hemispheres. It was one of the benefits of being a diasporic child with scattered family and friends; in fact, I probably spent more childhood Christmases in the United Kingdom than in my ‘official’ home of Australia. Understandably, this fragmented upbringing has led to an eclectic range of Christmas associations that are embedded deep within my psyche. These range from the gentle drone of a fan in the deep, dark of night to the experience of waking up by a frozen window, wearing woolen socks and flannelette pyjamas. But despite the differences in climate, cuisine and culture, there is one Christmas treat that I remember eating, no matter where I was.

Can you guess? If you said the ‘fruit mince pie’, you’d be correct. If you didn’t, you’ve obviously not been following the theme in this early morning assembly of words and… I guess I don’t blame you. Or me, as I’m writing this in a sleep-deprived state.

When I was a child, our family’s mince pie of choice was Mr Kipling, the quintessentially English treat that came in a shiny red-and-white box with embossed lettering. I loved them, and often kept the shiny foil cases after I’d polished off every morsel. I still have a soft spot for Mr Kipling whenever I see the festive displays in supermarkets; however, in recent years I’ve been making an effort to increase both the health value and the ethical quality of the food I eat, even during the indulgent Christmas season.

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So, by means of a (final) introduction to the following recipe, I just want to say that the humble mince pie is a wonderful thing. Eaten hot or cold, in a bowl or in your hands, they’re highly adaptable and can easily morph from a snack to dessert à la mode in a matter of minutes. The recipe I’ve included has been influenced by a number of sources, both from the internet and from various baking cookbooks I’ve collected over the years. It’s predominantly wholemeal, suet-free, and as organic as I could make it.

Personally, I feel that the added booze adds a beautiful depth and complexity to the fruit mince, however if you’d prefer to omit it for personal (or parenting) reasons I’d replace it with the same quantity of apple juice, orange juice or water. It’ll be beautiful either way.

So, Merry Christmas everyone. May your day be merry, bright and delicious, even if (like me) it’s going to be dry, hot and brown rather than frosty white.

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Wholemeal Mince Pies with Spiced Whisky Fruits

Shortcrust Pastry:

  • 225g cold organic butter, diced
  • 200g wholemeal plain flour
  • 150g white plain flour
  • 100g raw caster sugar
  • 280g fruit mince (recipe to follow)
  • 1 egg white
  • icing sugar, to dust

For this recipe, you will need a 20 x 5cm hole patty tin or mini-muffin tray. Make sure that each hole is greased well with butter before you start.

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Preheat your oven to 180 degrees C (356 degrees f). Measure both your flours into a medium-sized bowl. Add in your cold butter, then rub together with your fingers until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Add in the sugar and a pinch of crushed sea salt. Combine into a ball, then knead slightly. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap, then place into the refrigerator for 20 minutes to chill.

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When your pastry is chilled but still workable, turn it out onto a floured surface. Divide it into two halves, then set one half aside (this will later form the tops of your mince pies). With a rolling pin, roll the other half of your pastry into a smooth disc around 0.5cm thick. Using a 6.5cm cutter, cut out approximately 18-20 rounds to form the pastry bases (re-roll any offcuts of pastry to the same thickness as required).

Insert your pastry discs into each hole, pressing well into the edges of the tin. You may find at this stage that your pastry starts to fall apart; this is entirely normal for a ‘short’ dough (as both the fat and the sugar in your mixture inhibit the gluten in the flour from binding together and becoming elastic). All you need to do is ensure that you press all the fragmented parts together thoroughly, so that they’ll adhere adequately when cooked.

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When your pastry cases are complete, prick the bases with a fork to allow air to escape during the cooking process. Apply a little beaten egg white with a pastry brush to seal the surface, then add one heaped teaspoon of fruit mince into each case.

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On a floured surface, roll out your reserved pastry (optional: keep a small baby-fist-sized portion aside for decorative purposes) to 0.5cm thick. Cut out 5cm rounds with a biscuit cutter or the inner lip of jam jar (as I did) then place them on top of your filled mince pies. Press around the edges lightly with your fingers to seal.

When all of your pies are completed, glaze them with a little more egg white. If desired, you can then decorate them with pastry shapes like the ‘leaf’ pattern I developed below. It’s ridiculously simple; just cut some diamond shapes from your leftover pastry, shape them into little ‘leaves’ with your hands and then press the edges lightly with the tines of a fork (see image below). Use a blunt knife to form a ‘vein’ down the middle of each leaf, then place them onto your pastry cases, pressing to aid adhesion.  Brush each leaf with a little egg wash, then dust the whole lot with some raw caster sugar.

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Place your finished mince pies in the oven, checking regularly, for 30 minutes to 1 hour (depending upon the reliability of your oven). The pies will be done when the tops are light golden, you can smell the fragrant spices of the hot fruit mince and the pie surface is slightly firm and dry to the touch.

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Leave your pies to cool in the tin on a wire rack. When sufficiently cooled, twist each pie slightly to release it from it’s mold, then lift it out carefully. Arrange on a serving platter and dust with icing sugar to serve.

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Spiced Whisky Fruit Mince

  • 1 small Granny Smith (green) apple; peeled, cored and grated
  • 285g mixed dried fruit (I used chopped dried apricots, raisins and sultanas)
  • 60g glace cherries
  • 1/3 cup bitter marmalade
  • 1/4 tsp mixed spice (I used Herbie’s Fragrant Sweet Spices)
  • a couple of shakes of cinnamon, extra
  • 1 good splash of Stone’s Ginger Wine
  • 2 tbsp whisky
  • 2 tbsp water

Combine all of the above in a medium sized bowl. Mix well, cover, then refrigerate overnight (or for at least 8 hours) for the liquid to absorb.

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The next morning, stir your mixture well. Your fruit should be plump and fragrant, with a little thickened liquid at the bottom of the bowl. Use as per the recipe above; any leftover fruit mince can be kept refrigerated for up to five days, or frozen for up to three months.

Notes:

  • This recipe uses wholemeal shortcrust pastry, organic butter, organic, suet-free dried fruit filling and a touch of liquor. I’m not going to go as far as to call it ‘healthy’, but it’s definitely healthier than the  shop-bought versions which contain vegetable shortening, refined sugar and lard.
  • ‘Shortcrust’ pastry got it’s name from the fact that the protein strands are actually ‘shorter’ than in normal pastry, because each flour particle is coated in fat (in this case, butter) and sugar. This prohibits the development of elasticity and consequential chewiness.
  • Flowing on from this, shortcrust is actually the most crumbly, delicious, melt-in-your-mouth pastry around. The normal ratio for flour to fat for this pastry is 1:1. However, the quantities above will still give you a beautifully tender, buttery result (whilst being a little better for the waistline).
  • Any leftover fruit mince can easily be transformed into fruit pillow biscuits, these fruit mince scrolls or these deliciously fruity truffles. As above, you can also freeze it in an airtight container for a few months.

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quinoa salad with preserved lemon, pomegranate and mint

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Crimson red, forest green, flecks of gold and snow-capped white. Absolutely everywhere? Yep, that’s the Christmas season for you. Alternatively, you could be sitting in a camp Italian restaurant waiting for garlicky pasta marinara… but since it’s December, let’s go with the former.

Hm, Christmas. It’s hard to believe that it’s almost upon us… in nine days to be exact. I’m only half way through my Christmas shopping but I’ve already celebrated three times this month; with work, family and most recently, with friends around an apartment barbecue. This gathering, albeit informal, contained pretty much all that I love about Christmas. We shared great food and weird stories around an improvised table before crashing on the floor to watch Charlie the Unicorn with rich cocoa brownies and wine in mismatched glasses.

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Strangely, there was no tinsel in sight. No pudding either. We did, however, celebrate the year that was, whilst thanking God for His strength that brought us through every circumstance. Now, I know that for some people ‘religious talk’ is a big turn off in any context, especially in an otherwise non-religious blog post. But since it’s December, nine days away from Christmas, please grant me one line: I believe that Jesus Christ is the one gift that matters, the Saviour for all eternity and the biggest reason to lift our hearts in celebration this Christmas and always.

There, that’s it. If you’d like to find out more, or if you have no idea what I’m going on about, take a look here (also check out Matthew 1:18-25; Matthew 2:1-12; Luke 1:26-38; Luke 2:1-20). If you don’t want to bother, then don’t. Okay, on with the recipe post.

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In my opinion, today’s recipe is perfect for a balmy Australian Christmas. It’s deliciously light, fresh and healthy but will add a touch of Christmas colour and complexity to your festive table. The main ingredients you’ll need are quinoa, pomegranate, mint and preserved lemon. I’ve discussed quinoa previously in my Honey Chia Muesli Slice post, but in a nutshell it’s the seed of an Andean flowering plant that’s full of vitamins, complete protein and minerals. It’s both delicious and good for you, especially when complimented by complex flavours such as goat’s cheese, mint, pomegranate seeds and toasted nuts.

This salad was happily devoured at our communal barbecue with creamy potato and bacon salad, Heirloom tomato salad, fresh kaiser rolls, homemade beetroot relish, chicken kebabs and garlicky Scotch fillet steaks. It’s a beautiful feeling to bring joy to people through the medium of food, especially during the holiday season. I hope that this recipe will become a valued (and healthy) part of your festive repertoire this Summer.

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Quinoa Salad with Preserved Lemon, Pomegranate and Mint

Serves 3-4 as a light meal or 6 as an accompaniment

  • 3/4 cup dry organic white Royal Quinoa
  • 1/4 cup dry organic black Royal Quinoa
  • 1 cup tightly packed fresh mint leaves, finely chopped, a few leaves reserved
  • 2 quarters (or half) of a preserved lemon*
  • 1 pomegranate, seeds removed, pith and skin discarded (see below for preparation tips)
  • 1/2 cup crumbled goat cheese or Danish feta
  • 1/2 cup unsalted shelled pistachios, lightly toasted then coarsely crushed in a mortar and pestle
  • 1/2 cup slivered almonds, lightly toasted
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • juice of half a fresh lemon (or to taste)
  • sea salt
  • freshly cracked black pepper
  • pomegranate molasses* (optional)

Place the quinoa in a fine mesh strainer, then rinse it thoroughly under fresh cold water. Swish the quinoa around with your hands, rubbing slightly to remove the bitter outer coating (called saponin, which can contribute a slightly bitter or soapy flavour). Drain well, then place your quinoa in a medium saucepan. Add in two cups of fresh cold water, replace the lid and bring the mixture to a rolling boil. Immediately lower the heat so that the mixture simmers gently, then cook with the lid in place for about 15 minutes. When your quinoa is cooked, the liquid should be fully absorbed and the germ should slightly curl away from the quinoa seeds. Allow to stand for five minutes, covered, then add in a good splash of extra virgin olive oil, the lemon juice, some sea salt and black pepper. Place into a medium bowl then set aside.

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Start preparing your preserved lemon: remove and discard the flesh from the rinds. Rinse the rinds well under fresh cold water then pat them dry with a paper towel. Chop finely with a very sharp knife; first lengthways then crossways as below:

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Add the prepared rind to your quinoa, then set aside. Next, remove the seeds from your pomegranate. There are several ways to do this without resembling a blood-splattered butcher, but my favourite method is practiced by Sanam at My Persian Kitchen. Check out her tutorial here. Once you’ve dislodged your seeds, make sure that there’s no remaining white pith, skin or membrane attached then add them to your bowl of ingredients with the chopped mint, crumbled cheese, three quarters of the nuts and an extra splash of olive oil. Mix well, then season with salt and pepper. Add in a little more lemon juice if desired.

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To serve, place your quinoa salad into a clean bowl or onto a serving platter, then garnish with a good drizzle of pomegranate molasses, the extra nuts, reserved mint leaves and some black pepper. Serve on it’s own, or as an accompaniment with some grilled harissa chicken and a dollop of mint-infused Greek yoghurt.

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Notes:

  • *Preserved lemons are made by quartering fresh lemons and packing them tightly in sterilised jars with salt and lemon juice. After a few weeks, the rind and pith soften into a delicious, slightly salty, intensely lemony condiment that’s perfect to add to salads, tagines, and pretty much any other North African or Moroccan dish. Read more about preserved lemons here.
  • *Pomegranate molasses (above) is a concentrated form of pomegranate juice. It’s sticky, sweetly tart and slightly syrupy, and it adds an extra dimension of deliciousness to this dish if you can purchase some. I order mine via mail from Herbie’s at Gourmet Shopper, see link. It’s also delicious in cocktails or in marinades for chicken or fish.
  • Quinoa ratios for cooking: as a general rule, one cup dry quinoa yields about three cups of cooked quinoa. Always use the ratio of one part dry quinoa to two parts water or other liquids. You can also soak quinoa in the same amount of liquid to ease digestive processes whilst maintaining nutrients in an almost-raw state. See this tutorial for more details. It also helps remove some of the bitter saponin that I mentioned above.
  • Feel free to experiment with various stocks and soaking liquids to add extra flavour. I’ve also cooked quinoa in water with a splash of maple syrup to create a sweet-ish breakfast porridge, crowned with fresh creamy ricotta, toasted almonds, a sprinkle of cinnamon and grated orange zest. So delicious and so good for you.
  • Quinoa adapts incredibly well to any recipe that calls for seeds or grains. I’ve used it successfully as a substitute for bulgur in Tabbouleh whilst also reinventing salads traditionally inhabited by Couscous. You’ll be pleased to know that it completely overwhelms the nutritional value of each.

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roasted beet salad with walnuts and chèvre

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It’s not exactly a secret, but… well, I’m a little bit in love with cheese. Actually, make that a lot. Give me a glass of red, some crackers and some cheese on a balmy evening and I’ll be in my version of dairy heaven. Well, except if the cheese of choice is Kraft Singles, as that’s not really cheese at all (ah, I’ll rant about this topic another day). In terms of recipe adaptability, my new favourite cheese is the deliciously creamy chèvre. It’s characteristically piquant flavour is adaptable enough to add to a range of dishes, from stuffed mushrooms, crepes and salads to creamy, semi-sweet desserts.

What, might you ask, is chèvre? Well, although it sounds fancy, it’s just the French name for soft, pressed curd cheese that’s been made with goat’s milk. It’s creamy, white and full of medium-chain fatty acids such as caproic, caprylic and capric acid, all of which contribute to a slightly tart flavour. I love it, and regularly consume it in a very simple fashion: spread thickly onto toasted sourdough, with fresh Italian parsley and a drizzle of lemon oil. It’s also fabulous in any recipe that calls for feta cheese, but make sure that you buy a medium-firm variety or you’ll end up with milky goat goo (don’t you love that word?) throughout your salad.

Image credit: Leela at 'She Simmers'. Click for a recipe on how to make your own homemade chèvre

Image credit: Leela at ‘She Simmers’. Click for a recipe on how to make your own homemade chèvre.

For those of you who are deterred by the fact that chèvre comes from a goat rather than a cow, let me explain a few benefits:

  • Goat milk typically contains less lactose than cow’s milk, which makes it favourable for people who suffer from lactose intolerance.
  • It’s protein composition is more similar to human milk than cow’s milk, so it’s often the milk of choice for the elderly, or children who are intolerant of certain proteins or sugars in traditional dairy milk
  • On average, goat cheese tends to contain 20% less calories and fat than cow’s milk cheese. It also contains shorter fat molecules that are easier to digest into ready-to-use energy.
  • It’s also lower in saturated fat, salt and cholesterol. In an average comparison of 1-0z. of cheddar cheese to 1-oz. goat’s cheese, cheddar comes up at 9g total fat, 6g saturated fat, 170mg sodium and 25mg cholesterol. Goat’s cheese scores 5g total fat, 3g saturated fat, 65mg sodium and no cholesterol. At all. How good is that?
  • Goat’s cheese doesn’t contain as much protein as pressed cheddar, as it’s less concentrated. But… if you look at the raw product, milk, goat’s milk contains an average of 8.7g protein, whereas cow’s milk contains 8.1g. In a balanced diet containing other sources of protein, the difference is negligible.
  • Other nutrients and vitamins readily available in goat’s cheese include tryptophan (an amino acid), phosphorus, vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin A (47% higher than cow’s cheese), niacin (three times as much as cow’s milk), selenium (an antioxidant), potassium and vitamin B6 (25% more than cow’s cheese). Goat cheese also contains a moderate level of probiotics (which aid gastrointestinal health) and lots of calcium (which is essential for bone health, amongst other things).
  • Last but not least, because goat products are often not as mass-produced as cow products, they’re less likely to have nasty synthetic hormones and other additives that can cause allergic reactions. That’s definitely a good thing.

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If you’ve looked at the picture above (yeah, that one of the beetroot) you’re probably wondering why I’ve spent the majority of this post talking about the benefits of goat’s cheese. Well… when eating some warm, crusty bread adorned with goat’s cheese, extra virgin olive oil and a splash of aged balsamic, I guess other things pale in comparison. But, I digress… both beetroot and goat’s cheese are very relevant to this recipe post, as we’ll be roasting this vibrant root vegetable in a deliciously sticky glaze before combining it with soft goat’s cheese, crunchy toasted walnuts, fresh herbs and balsamic dressing (if you’re wondering, beetroot is also very good for you. Take a look at the stats, here).

Below, you’ll find my go-to recipe for this classic roasted beetroot, walnut and chèvre (I felt like being French again) salad. It’s delicious on it’s own, with some added quinoa or as an accompaniment to a crispy-skinned salmon steak. If you feel like experimenting, check the ‘notes’ section below. I’ve included some of my favourite recipe variations which will hopefully be a delicious addition to your table over the festive Summer months.

Thanks again for reading, and apologies that my estimated week (for my next recipe post) ended up being almost two. Jouir de!

saladmont

Roasted Beetroot, Walnut and Chèvre Salad with Balsamic Dressing

Serves 2 as a substantial salad, 4 as an accompaniment.

*When making this recipe, please keep in mind that beetroot stains everything. Everything, including skin, chopping boards, clothing and unvarnished wooden benchtops. Please make sure that you handle them respectfully and cautiously, with gloves if desired. But despite this warning, any incidental staining is definitely worth it.

  • 1 bunch raw baby beets (leaves still attached, if possible)
  • 1/2 small Spanish (red) onion
  • 1 cup (packed) washed and dried baby spinach leaves
  • a handful of parsley, coarsely chopped
  • 3/4 cup walnuts, roasted then lightly crushed
  • 80g (or more, depending upon your preference) fresh chèvre (soft goat’s cheese), crumbled
  • good quality olive oil, to roast
  • aged balsamic vinegar
  • red wine vinegar
  • a drizzle of honey or rice malt syrup
  • sea salt
  • freshly cracked black pepper
  • extra virgin olive oil, to dress

Preheat oven to 180 degrees C (356 degrees f). Detach leaves from beetroot, wash the small, tender ones well and set them aside (keep the rest of the beet greens! Separate the leaves, finely chop the stalks and saute in olive oil with some finely chopped shallot and a splash of water. Simmer until tender, add some salt (and a knob of butter, if you’re feeling generous) and serve… maybe with a poached egg on top!).

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Wash your beetroot well under cold running water, trimming any stray roots and tough bits of skin with a small, sharp knife. Pat beetroot dry with a paper towel, then cut them into even-sized wedges. Place them into a shallow, foil-lined baking tray then splash over some good olive oil, some aged balsamic, red wine vinegar, water, sea salt and cracked pepper (I don’t strictly follow any quantities here… basically, you want to create enough liquid for the beetroot to initially steam, then caramelise with a sticky, delicious glaze. Make sure there’s about 0.5-1cm of liquid covering the base of your tray before putting it in the oven). Toss to coat, then place your tray into the preheated oven to cook, turning occasionally, for about 40-60 minutes.

roastingmont

Half way through the cooking time, add in your sliced Spanish onion to caramelise. Your beetroot will be done when the vinegars have reduced, the onion is translucent and slightly browned, and the beetroot can be pierced easily with a knife. Remove the tray from them oven, then allow to cool.

traymont

Now, here’s the easy part: assemble your salad. Place your beetroot, the reserved tender beetroot leaves and spinach in a shallow bowl. Add in three quarters of the walnuts and chèvre. In a separate bowl (or your oven tray, if sufficiently cooled), add the beetroot and onion to your chopped parsley leaves. Toss well to coat, then add to the rest of your ingredients, including a splash more olive oil, balsamic and red wine vinegar. Scatter over the remaining walnuts, chèvre and some freshly cracked black pepper to garnish. Enjoy alone or as an accompaniment to your favourite protein.

salad

Notes:

  • Now you’ve mastered the basics of a beetroot salad, you can adapt this recipe to your individual preferences. Flavours that work wonderfully with beetroot include mint, feta, fresh green peas, yoghurt, crème fraîche or sour cream, Moroccan spices and other root vegetables such as sweet potato or carrots. I’ve made this recipe with additional roasted sweet potato, a sprinkling of dukkah and a yoghurt dressing instead of chèvre. Delicious.
  • An alternate way to roast your beetroot is to wrap it whole, in foil with a good splash of water and red wine vinegar. Place in the oven and roast for 1 1/2 – 2 hours, or until the vegetable can be easily pierced with a fork. Peel the beetroot, with gloved hands (I am talking from personal experience – beetroot stains take hours of scrubbing to remove), then discard the skins. You can then cut your beetroot into wedges for the above recipe, or finely dice it and add it to lots of finely chopped mint with some finely sliced raw Spanish onion, crumbled chèvre and a splash of extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper and lemon juice. Serve with a dollop of crème fraîche. So good with steamed salmon or gravadlax (Swedish dill-cured salmon. So delicious).
  • Beetroot also makes a wonderful base for healthy, vibrantly-hued dips. Roast your beetroot in foil as above, peel then add to a food processor with whatever flavours you desire: Moroccan spices, yoghurt, crème fraîche or sour cream (I like using a bit of both), ground walnuts, fresh mint or parsley, lemon juice and a slug of olive oil. All of these flavours work remarkably well with the beetroot, so definitely experiment and see what combination you like best. My friend Caryse also makes an amazing beetroot dip with pine nuts, olive oil and parmesan… I still need to wheedle out the recipe but it was deliciously good with grilled chicken, sourdough toasts and soft double brie.

bottlemont leaves

Uh, just one more point about my beloved cheese. And a TV show. You may or may not have heard of The Mighty Boosh but this absolute genius-of-a-show was the brainchild of comedians Julian Barrett and Noel Fielding. I’ll let you read up on other details via the link above, but… for the sake of novelty value, I’m going to conclude this post with one of my favourite scenes of all time. Indeed, it is cheese related. Indeed, it is legendary. It’s protein, in video form. Enjoy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8kkwXnTmMc

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