hummingbird cake with cream cheese frosting and toasted coconut sugar

topA couple of nights ago, my husband arrived home from work as I was happily baking away in our matchbox-sized kitchen. “What are you making?” he inquired, peering over my shoulder as he headed towards the shower. “Hummingbird cake”, I responded, absentmindedly pouring the thick batter into my lined cake tin. He smiled slightly, re-entering the room.

“How many did you put in it?”

I looked at him quizzically, licking some batter off my finger before sliding the cake onto an oven rack. “Uh… how many what?”

“Hummingbirds!”

“Ohhhh. Right.” (my failure to identify this joke earlier in the conversation was rather abysmal, wasn’t it?)

bananaeggmontAnyway, I’ll stop the conversation there, as it took a rather non-animal-friendly turn (think: comments about fried and baked hummingbirds, minced hummingbirds, the nutritional value of hummingbirds) but ever since that night I’ve been wondering how this moist, spiced banana, pineapple and coconut cake got it’s rather interesting name.

slice2Enter Google (how I ever survived without this search engine, I’ll never know). A few clicks revealed that the printed origin of this cake dates back to February 1978, when a Mrs. L.H. Wiggins of Greensboro, North Carolina submitted the recipe to Southern Living magazine. Since then, it’s been the most requested recipe in the magazine’s history, winning all-time favourite recipe in 1990 and collecting numerous blue ribbons at country fairs across the United States.

sugar2There’s also speculation that the cake existed long before being printed in Southern Living magazine. Variations exist around the world (with different quantities of fruit, nuts and spices) under names such as ‘Jamaica Cake‘ and ‘Granny Cake‘. Hm, I’ve just experienced an epiphany:

  1. The hummingbird is the national bird of Jamaica
  2. Hummingbirds like sweet things, especially nectar of fruits and flowers
  3. Grandmothers also like sweet things (well, at least mine did. She stole my Galaxy Minstrels on more than one occasion)

…it’s all starting to make sense! Well, uh… sort of.

insidecanAnyway, enough musing for one morning. Below you’ll find my recipe for the Jamaican Granny’s Hummingbird cake (I’m being all-inclusive here) which has been slightly altered from the original by substituting walnuts for pecans, organic coconut sugar for brown sugar and raisins for… well, an absence of raisins. I’ve also chosen to bake it as a single layer cake, cutting down the usual amount of frosting to a singular, thick layer on the top.

This version of Hummingbird cake is topped with a layer of crunchy, toasted coconut, organic coconut sugar and cinnamon. I think it adds a delicious dimension of flavour and texture that echoes those of the cake itself. If you’d like to be a traditional Southerner, I’d suggest substituting this for the more traditional topping of toasted walnuts or pecans. Yee-haw!

slicefrontHummingbird Cake

  • 250g self-raising flour
  • 270g organic coconut sugar (I use Coco’s Organic Blend from Gewürzhaus, however Loving Earth Fairtrade Organic Coconut Sugar is also fantastic… the added bonus is that they sell in bulk)
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground coriander
  • 50g dessicated coconut
  • 440g can crushed pineapple in natural juice, drained
  • 2 ripe bananas, mashed
  • 2 free-range eggs
  • 3/4 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 200ml sunflower oil

Preheat your oven to 170 degrees C (338 degrees f). Grease and line a 23cm cake tin, then set aside.

Sift your flour and spices into a large bowl. Add in your coconut sugar, dessicated coconut, raisins and walnuts, then stir to combine.

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Lightly beat your eggs in a separate bowl, then add in your other liquid ingredients (mashed banana, sunflower oil, drained crushed pineapple). Add the liquid ingredients to your dry ingredients, stirring until well combined.

nutsbowlmontPour the mixture into your lined cake tin, tapping it lightly on the bench top to remove any trapped air pockets. Bake for 40 – 60 minutes, depending upon the efficiency of your oven (it takes about 65-70 minutes in my little gas cooker!). Your cake is done when the top is light golden and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out with only a few moist crumbs attached.

Cool your cake in the tin on a wire rack, then refrigerate until you’re ready to top it with frosting.

ibbestCream Cheese Frosting

*the quantity of frosting below has been calculated to cover the top of the cake only. If you intend to fully cover your cake or build traditional layers, I’d suggest that you double or triple the mixture accordingly.

  • 125g cream cheese
  • 50g unsalted, organic butter
  • 150g pure icing sugar, sifted
  • lemon juice, to taste (I used about one tablespoon)

Beat the cream cheese, butter and icing sugar together until you have a smooth mixture. Add a little lemon juice, beat again, then taste. Add more lemon as desired. Refrigerate until you are ready to ice your cake.

lemonicingingTo ice: place a pile of the cream cheese frosting in the centre of your cake. Using broad strokes with a palette knife or spoon, work the icing outwards until it reaches the edge. Continue smoothing the icing in a circular pattern, rotating the cake under your knife, until you have a smooth, even layer over the top of your cake.

icingcakeRefrigerate for 20 minutes before adding your toasted coconut sugar topping (recipe below).

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Toasted Coconut Sugar Topping

  • 1/2 cup coarsely shredded coconut
  • 1 tablespoon organic coconut sugar
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

Place the shredded coconut onto an oven tray. In a moderate oven (180 degrees C/356 degrees f), toast the shredded coconut until it turns a light shade of golden brown. Allow to cool slightly, then place in a small bowl. Add in the organic coconut sugar and ground cinnamon, stir to combine. Use to top your cake if desired.

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Notes:

  • Coconut sugar is a minimally processed product made from the sap of cut flower buds from the coconut palm. It’s a soft, golden, dense sugar that tastes similar to brown sugar, with soft notes of toffee and caramel.
  • Coconut sugar has a low gycaemic index (>35) for sustained energy. It’s a rich source of minerals including potassium, magnesium, zinc and iron (in comparison to brown sugar, it has 36 times the iron, four times the magnesium, and over 10 times the amount of zinc). It also contains B-vitamins and 16 essential amino acids.
  • Due to it’s minimally processed nature, coconut sugar can vary slightly in terms of sweetness. However, in general you can use it as a 1:1 substitute for brown sugar in your favourite recipes. If you’re worried, taste your product before using it and add a little extra if it seems less sweet.

sugarspoonP.S. Today is the 26th January, 2013: Australia Day for all of those from the Great Southland! I just want to say a big ‘Happy Aussie Day’ to all of my fellow citizens, wherever you are in the world… especially those whom I count as beautiful friends and family. I love our country and I consider it a privilege to celebrate the foundations of Australia as we know it today. Have fun, whatever you’re doing (e.g. eating meat pies, drinking beer, watching cricket or baking lamingtons… come to think of it, I probably should have posted a recipe for lamingtons or Anzac biscuits today. Oh well… maybe next year).

dark chocolate, sea salt and walnut cookies

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Get ready for an obscene statement.

I love cookies.

Okay, so that might be just slightly anticlimactic; especially seeing as almost the entire population of the Western world shares the same view. What may be a little more surprising is the fact that I love pretty much all cookies, whether they be soft or crunchy, chewy or crumbly, well-browned or pallid and slightly underdone. As long as they’re buttery and crammed with ‘the good stuff’ (e.g. chocolate chips, toasted nuts, dried fruit) I will happily consume every last crumb with a satisfied smile on my face. Cookie goodness equals happy Laura; especially when accompanied by a fresh cup of piping hot tea.

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In recent months, I’ve realised that this kind of statement may seem quite unusual to some bakers. Most cookie consumers seem to be a lot more discerning, especially when it comes to the hallowed chocolate chip variety. In fact, some bloggers have even gone to the extent of testing and comparing various recipes for flavour, consistency and texture (see here, here and here for some examples) in the hope of finding the ‘ultimate’ chocolate chip cookie. As this ‘research’ is entirely subjective, the jury remains out as to which cookie reigns supreme. However, as far as I can tell, American audiences largely favour the soft, chewy cookie varieties whilst the British prefer crunchier, crumblier versions that stay true to the original definition of biscuit. Yes, Americans and Canadians, I classify your ‘biscuits’ as ‘scones‘. You are entitled to argue.

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Anyway, moving on. You’ll find below a recipe for a chocolate chip cookie that my 20-year-old self first discovered whilst reading the January 2004 edition of Good Taste magazine in a Woolworths supermarket. The main draw card was the walnuts; I love anything with walnuts, especially when combined with dark chocolate. So, after a moment’s deliberation, I squirreled the magazine home in my handbag (after paying for it, of course), hauled out my mother’s old General Electric hand-held mixer and spent the evening covered in flour, butter and melted chocolate. By the next day, all of the cookies had mysteriously disappeared. The recipe was declared a great and glorious success.

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Fast forward, uh… nine years. I’m still baking these cookies as part of my regular rotation. Sometimes I mix things up a bit by adding dried fruit, white chocolate, macadamias instead of walnuts, sea salt (as per this more sophisticated version) or extra butter and more eggs (read on to ‘notes’ for information on how these ingredients change the consistency of a cookie). Each variation has been equally delicious and eagerly consumed by my friends, family and work colleagues.

So. If you haven’t already found your favourite chocolate chip cookie recipe, I’d encourage you to try this one. It’s not a chewy cookie recipe (unless you try one of the variations below) but you’ll end up with a deliciously crisp, crunchy cookies with buttery dough, smooth dark chocolate chunks and the bitterness of toasted walnuts. Try them on their own, with a fresh cup of char or crumbled up over vanilla ice-cream and hot fudge sauce. Either way, they’re absolutely delicious… and with the protein-packed nuts and antioxidant content, I convince myself that they’re healthy, too. Sort of.

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Dark Chocolate, Sea Salt and Walnut Cookies

Adapted slightly from this recipe by Sarah Hobbs.

  • 125g butter, softened
  • 100g (1/2 cup) soft brown sugar, firmly packed
  • 1 free-range egg, at room temperature
  • 225g (1 1/2 cups) plain flour, sifted
  • 200g dark eating chocolate
  • 150g (1 1/2 cups) walnuts, coarsely chopped
  • Murray River flaked pink sea salt (or other delicate sea salt), optional

Preheat oven to 180 degrees C (356 degrees f). Line two medium baking trays with greaseproof paper, then set aside.

Beat butter and sugar together with an electric beater until pale and creamy. Add in your egg, then beat until thoroughly combined. Sift in your flour, then stir well with a spatula or wooden spoon. Add in your walnuts and dark chocolate. Stir to combine.

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Use your hands to roll tablespoons-full of mixture into balls. Place the balls, 2-3cm apart, onto your prepared trays. Flatten slightly with your hand or a fork.

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Bake in a preheated oven for 20 minutes, swapping the tray positions in your oven half way through. When ready, your cookies should be light golden. Remove from the oven, then set aside to cool for 5 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

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When your cookies are almost cooled, sprinkle each with a few flakes of good quality, mild sea salt. This little step is entirely optional, but trust me; the crunchy, salty flakes pair perfectly with the earthy, sweet dark chocolate, butter and brown sugar. Yum.

seasalt2

Notes:

  • As aforementioned, this recipe will produce thick, crunchy, crisp and crumbly chocolate chip cookies that are more in line with a traditional English biscuit. If you’d like them to be chewier, I’d suggest adding an extra egg yolk during the whipping process, alongside a teaspoon of vanilla essence. Add 1/4 tsp baking soda to the flour during the sifting process, then continue as per the recipe.
  • If you’d like thinner, crispier cookies, you need to add more butter (try 150g) and substitute the brown sugar for white, granular caster sugar. Brown sugar is more acidic and hydrophilic, which means that it retains more moisture during the cooking process. White sugar, being less dense, can help produce a crisper end product. Increasing the butter content will also add further milk protein which aids in browning and crisping.
  • If you’re baking these cookies on a warm day and the dough seems to be too sticky, refrigerate it for a while before baking. Don’t add more flour, as this will likely produce a drier, hard finished product.
  • Over-mixing your dough can also result in tough cookies (and contrary to the saying, this is not a good thing). When flour is combined with liquid, the embedded gluten starts to develop into a network of protein strands that become stronger and more elastic when mixed. This holds your baked goods together (a positive) but can also toughen them (a negative) if over-worked. In any cookie recipe, use the minimum amount of mixing required to create a uniform dough (a good indicator is that there should be no visible patches of flour).
  • I these bake cookies between two baking trays (or cookie sheets) to allow space for spreading. Even if you have room for both trays on one oven shelf, I’d suggest rotating your trays between two different oven positions half way through the cooking time to allow for better air circulation and heat distribution. Most ovens have hot spots (mine definitely do!) so this will result in a more evenly baked product.
  • Do you tend to eat left over cookie dough? I’ve recently broken the habit. Why? Well, cookie dough contains very perishable items, the most significant of which is raw egg. Consumption of chicken eggs in their raw state can lead to serious food poisoning (and death) through the ingestion of salmonella, so if you’re going to eat raw cookie dough I’d suggest making a special egg-free batch.

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End note: This recipe reminds me of my beautiful, talented and generous mother (as I continue to use her now-gifted, 25+ year old mixer; she also adores anything with nuts and will always be my first official taste tester) and my best friend, Vicky (who consumed a whole tin of these in one week whilst pregnant; she has now added this recipe to her own family’s repertoire). These amazing women are inspiring, supportive and generous with their love and time. I’m so grateful to be traveling through the ups and downs of life with them. Oh, and whilst I’m adding links, also check out the freshly minted website of my husband and new official taste tester, Aaron. He and the poker boys gave these cookies their manly endorsement last night, so they must be good.

morning thoughts

brekkycloseGood morning beautiful people. Just a very quick post this morning to apologise for the recent changes in layout, menus and user-friendliness here at Laura’s Mess. I’ve been experimenting, in the hope that I’ll find something perfectly fitting to my individual blog, but alas… at present I’m settling with the best of many not-quite-right options. I think this is the point where I let out a big sigh whilst lamenting my inadequate knowledge of HTML. It’s ridiculously complicated, and I’ve concluded that I have no hope of actually designing my own web page. I’ve spent a few hours learning the basics via HTML Dog and I still feel like my knowledge represents a pea in a giant communal pan of paella.

Anyway, moving on. To make this post remotely food-related, I’ve added in a few pictures of my first breakfast. By ‘first’, I mean that I’m actually going out for breakfast this morning at the civilized time of 9.00am. Being me, I was too hungry to wait, so straight to my default ‘yoghurt mess’.

brekmont

This little concoction has become my go-to combination for breakfasts, snacks and mid-afternoon energy boosts. It contains natural yoghurt (my favourite brands are currently Gippsland Natural Organic Yoghurt and Mundella Natural Greek Yoghurt), berries (I love strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and redcurrants), chopped raw almonds, white Chia seeds, chopped Medjool dates and puffed Amaranth. I sometimes add in some wholegrain oats or quinoa seeds if I’m extra hungry. I’ve already talked about the nutritional benefits of many of these ingredients in previous posts (for instance, take a look at Honey Chia Muesli Slice or my Banana Bread recipes for information on Chia seeds and quinoa), so all I’m going to say this morning is that it’s wonderful that something so delicious can actually be good for you.

To end, I’m just going to add in the most recent photo we’ve taken of our little bean-birds. These days, they actually have no resemblance to beans whatsoever – they’re miniature versions of fully grown Willie Wagtails – and their fat little bodies are having trouble fitting into their tiny nest. Their poor parents have now been relegated to nearby tree branches, but I don’t think they mind. They’re too busy trying to fight off neighbourhood cats, pigeons and unsuspecting apartment dwellers.

beanstacklsI love these beautiful little creatures. I’ll be sad to eventually see them go. As always, thanks for reading, and I promise that next time I’ll have a complete recipe for you!

marshmallow cocoa treats

table

A couple of months after we started dating, my then-boyfriend Aaron mentioned to me that he had a recipe for a particularly addictive chocolate-coated marshmallow confection. It was something that his mother used to make throughout their teen years for consumption during the Summer months, and the family would store them in the freezer for an icy cold, chocolatey treat.

At this point, my mind drifted. Frozen chocolate-coated marshmallows? Being a child of the British Empire, I’ve always associated this combination (sans freezing) with products such as the delightful Tunnock’s Tea Cake, which is eaten at room-temperature with a nice hot cup of tea. However, scattered throughout the conversation were phrases such as ‘the best thing ever’ and ‘you can’t stop at one’. His enthusiasm was infectious, so as our tastes are quite similar (uh, we’re both chocaholics) I remained rather keen to try them.

Some weeks later, Aaron turned up at my apartment bearing a slightly smudged, handwritten recipe card entitled ‘Marshmallow Treats’. I had a skim through the ingredients, quickly realising that the recipe was similar to chocolate marshmallow snowballs, a confection that I had oft sampled but never created from scratch.

recipe

Now, this is the point where my seed of doubt started to grow into a sizable seedling. Chocolate marshmallow snowballs have always fallen into the category of ‘fake’ chocolate for me, mostly because the samples I’ve tried have been dry, obviously biscuity and devoid of real chocolate flavour. However, a couple of days later Aaron brought home the ingredients and we spent a warm Saturday morning melting butter, sifting cocoa and rolling out a ginormous double-batch.

milkcookies

At this point, I need to specify that we followed Aaron’s family tradition by placing our trays of little treats directly in the freezer to set. Around an hour later, they emerged: frosty cold, deep cocoa-red and flaked with coconut.

As I earlier confessed my seedlings of doubt about this recipe, I’ll also be completely honest about my first reaction when eating a frozen marshmallow treat. They’re frosty cold, with slight resistance as your teeth penetrate the chocolate coating towards the soft marshmallow centre. As you chew, the coating melts into a sweet jumble of cocoa, crunchy biscuit and fragrant coconut… it’s an absolutely delicious, uniquely cold chocolate treat. Oh, and Aaron was also completely correct about the difficulty you’ll encounter when attempting to stop at one of these little mouthfuls. At our first sitting, we consumed… uh, about ten or so? Each. This was followed by a sudden bout of nausea, so I’d discourage you from following in our rather foolish footsteps.

mallows

So, whether you’ve experienced a dry chocolate snowball or a soft, pillowy Tunnock’s Tea Cake, I’d encourage you to set aside prior associations whilst sampling these frosty little marshmallow treats. Yes, they’re still skirting in ‘fake’ chocolate territory, but with genuine, high-quality Dutch-process cocoa they’re as chocolatey as can be.

You’ll see that we’ve made some adjustments to Aaron’s original family recipe… namely, a reduction in sugar and coconut. Admittedly, this does result in a slight textural variance from the original product (due to aspects of food science that I won’t describe here) however it allows the complexity of the cocoa to shine through.

If you’d prefer, get back-to-basics with the sugary recipe card above, an apron and a wooden spoon. Either way, try them straight from the freezer – you’ll be very glad you did.

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Marshmallow Cocoa Treats

Makes approx. 35 golf-ball-sized treats

  • 200g unsalted organic butter
  • 400g can of condensed milk
  • 1/2 cup (firmly packed) brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup Dutch process cocoa, sifted
  • 2 tsp natural vanilla essence
  • 250g plain, sweet biscuits (e.g. Arnott’s Marie or Milk Arrowroot, graham crackers or malt biscuits)
  • 250g marshmallows
  • 1 cup finely dessicated coconut

Combine the butter, sugar, condensed milk, vanilla essence and cocoa in a medium saucepan over low heat. Stir regularly, without boiling, until glossy and smooth. Remove from the heat and set aside whilst you prepare your biscuits.

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If you have a food processor, place all of your biscuits into the processor bowl and crush them until you have a fine consistency. If you don’t (like me), place half of the biscuits onto a clean tea towel, then fold to enclose. Bash your biscuit parcel with a heavy rolling pin or other kitchen implement until the biscuits are finely crushed. You may need to open the tea towel and give any resilient large pieces a direct hit with the rolling pin. Repeat the process until all your biscuits are of a finely crushed consistency.

Add the crushed biscuits to the chocolate mixture, then stir to combine. Set aside until the mixture thickens and reaches room temperature.

bowl

Now for the fun part: set up your ‘marshmallow treat assembly area’. You’ll need a clean tray lined with greaseproof paper, your bowl of chocolate mixture, a shallow plate or dish filled with dessicated coconut (for rolling your marshmallow treats in) and a bowl filled with clean, cool water.

Dip your hands into the water to slightly dampen them. Scoop take about one tablespoon’s worth of chocolate mixture, then form it into a flat disc with your fingers. Place a marshmallow in the centre of the disc, then fold around the edges until the marshmallow is completely enclosed. Roll the ball in the palms of your hands until it becomes smooth, spherical and shiny.

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Place the ball onto your plate of dessicated coconut, and gently roll it around until the outside is well coated. Carefully place your finished marshmallow treat onto the lined baking tray, then repeat the process as required.

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When your marshmallow treats are finished, place them in the fridge or freezer to chill for at least half an hour before eating. As above mentioned, our preferred storage method is in an airtight container in the freezer, for icy-cold consumption on warm Summer days.

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Notes:

  • I’m not going to kid you by saying that there are amazing health benefits within these little balls of chocolate deliciousness. Yes, there are beneficial antioxidants in cocoa, but they’re definitely not enough to outweigh all the butter and sugar you’ll be consuming. Let’s just say that these are a ‘sometimes’ food, ok? Don’t start at ten serves like we did.
  • Make sure that you keep your hands moist throughout the rolling process, or you (and possibly, your kitchen) will soon be covered in a sticky, coconut-flaked chocolate mess. Keep refreshing your bowl of water if it gets dirty.
  • If you’re not fond of coconut, you can roll these balls in toasted, crushed almonds or hazelnuts, more cocoa, chocolate sprinkles or (one of my favourite things) Swedish pearl sugar. If you’re unfamiliar with this ingredient, it’s basically little crystals of sugar (a little like rock salt) that add textural crunch and sweetness to baked goods. They’re traditionally used atop kanelbullar (Swedish cinnamon rolls).
  • You can also dip these delicious treats into melted milk, white or dark chocolate to completely gild the lily.
  • If the idea of marshmallows isn’t enticing, feel free to substitute a glace cherry, toasted nut or whatever else you desire as the centre filling. You can also just use the coating mixture to roll plain cocoa balls.
  • Extra note: you’ve probably identified that the hands in the initial ‘rolling’ illustration are not mine. They belong to Aaron, my much more masculine and ultra-talented counterpart. I’m the one with the peachy nail-polish doing an unintentional ‘running girl’ hand pose. Ha.

poppiestreats

For those who were wondering what happened to our little bean-birds during the prolonged stint of hot weather, I’ve included a more recent photo. Their mother successfully shielded them from the sun’s penetrating rays and they’ve quadrupled in size over the past two weeks.

Each day, their beautiful little heads pop up to be fed in a flurry of activity, translucent necks straining in the filtered sun. Their mother has also reached a new level of fierceness in her efforts to protect them. She performs air attacks on unsuspecting unit residents (a.k.a possible predators) every day.

I’ll be sad when they eventually leave the nest, as their little chirps and wobbly movements add a bit of joy to our everyday routines. I’ll keep you updated on their exceptionally fast progress… hopefully the next photo will be of little fluffy bean-birds in flight.

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roasted zucchini, rocket and brown rice salad

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Today is the first day of January, 2013.

Fittingly, I’m going to begin this post by saying a ‘Happy New Year’ to all of my friends, family and extended network… in particular, those of you who are reading this blog post. Thanks for sticking with me through the last eight months of my ‘learning experience’ as a fledgling blogger, recipe writer and photographer. It’s been huge amounts of fun mixed with a good dollop of frustration; the latter mostly due to my general inadequacy as a photographer.

I’ve also been struggling with the fact that my camera (actually, my husband’s old Canon, which is a little better than my Olympus point-and-shoot) doesn’t cope well with low light. The solution? Several weekend cooking and photography sessions in the heat of the midday sun, complete with iced beverages and saltwater dripping down my brow. In fact, the recipe you’re about to read was created on a 42.1 degrees C (107.78 degrees f) Summer day in my little tinderbox of a kitchen. Despite the air conditioning, I was… well, almost dying from heat stroke. Cue some therapeutic iced apple cider consumption. Ah, much better.

2013

So, that brings me back to 2013. Thankfully, today brought a cool change at the end of a week in Perth that has averaged temperatures around 39.3 degrees C (102.74 degrees f). It also brought some unavoidable discussion of ‘New Year’s Resolutions‘… a practice that I don’t often engage in. I do, however, engage in the process of ‘goal setting’ on a haphazard basis each year. In fact, I had several from 2012 that I am evaluating in my head right now:

  • Goal 1: improve my work/life balance. Ah, work. Some may say it’s a ‘necessary evil’, but I’ve recently discovered that it can be ‘significantly less evil’ if you find a job that balances more with your lifestyle. I’m happy to say that 2012 brought an end to a stressful three-year stint in a highly pressurised job… albeit via resignation. I’ve spent the past seven months working a contract for a smaller, community hospital and it’s changed my life. I also need to say a huge thank you to my long-suffering husband and mum, both of whom endured my job-related whinging for the best part of a year (or two) before I decided to do something about it. Sometimes leaps into the unknown are definitely worth it. I love you guys hugely.
  • Goal 2: start a blog. Well, as you can see, this goal was successfully ticked off the list with a knife and nut butter. I can’t believe that I actually managed to complete over 20 posts in eight months… that’s a pretty good start for someone who works full-time and tends to be out for at least a few nights per week. I actually can’t wait to embark on the blogging challenge that is 2013. It’s a creative outlet that brings me daily inspiration, so here’s another big thanks to my husband, mum, family and friends who have happily been guinea pigs (or ‘creative inlets’, as our friend Manuel says) for my new recipes and ideas over the past few (or many) years.
  • Goal 3: eat more healthily. Aaron and I have had fun with this one. We’re both ridiculous chocolate fiends who used to polish off a slab of brownies, lots of ice cream and a couple of blocks of chocolate per week. We now limit ourselves quite sensibly, whilst increasing our intake of whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, alternative proteins and super foods. I’ve even managed to convert Aaron to kale, which continues to surprise me. It’s been much easier than we thought, partly due to recipe experimentation and collaboration with foodie friends. I’m renewing this goal for the new year.
  • Goal 4: increase exercise. I’ve had varied success with this one. At the beginning of the year, I started off well by going to the gym twice per week, skipping and starting a running routine. However, each time I exercised, I was left in a desperately panting, distressed state. A visit to the doctor revealed something called ‘exercise-induced bronchoconstriction‘, or an exercise-induced type of asthma. Sadly, it’s made me a little exercise-phobic, but I’m working on it.

Anyway, that’s enough personal reflection. Let’s move on to the real reason for today’s post, the fifth installment of my ‘Summer Salads’ series: roasted zucchini (courgette, for those of you in the United Kingdom and Europe), rocket (arugula, for Americans) and brown rice (uh… brown rice, for everyone as far as I know) salad.

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I used to hate zucchini. I think it was a textural thing, as most of my early associations with eating zucchini were bitter, slimy and wet. Lucky for me, my mother knew the true value of this nutritious vegetable… she kept cooking it, primarily in bolognese sauce and ratatouille, and wouldn’t let me leave the table until I’d consumed at least two spoonfuls (she would kindly eat the rest).

Fast forward twenty years, and I love summer squash! Whether they’re roasted, stir-fried, baked in a moussaka or lasagne, stuffed or eaten raw in a salad, I’ll actually devour them happily with a grin on my face. Another benefit of converting to the squash family is that they’re pretty nutritious. Zucchini, for instance, is low in saturated fat, low in cholesterol and sodium, whilst being high in thiamin, niacin and panthothenic acid. It’s also a very good source of dietary fibre, protein, vitamins A and C, vitamin B6, folate, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper and manganese.

The recipe below is a moderately easy but delicious way to use zucchini in a Summery fashion. I find that this vegetable pairs naturally with lemon, mint and toasted nuts, so all of these are included in a tumble of brown rice with the sweetness of caramelised onions and sultanas. As I’ve mentioned below, this salad is delicious as a light meal with some creamy goat’s cheese, grilled chicken or chickpeas… perfect for warm Summer nights.

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Roasted Zucchini, Rocket and Brown Rice Salad

Serves 4 as a light meal, 6 as an accompaniment.

  • 2 medium green zucchini (courgettes), washed and cut into chunks
  • 1 red (Spanish) onion, washed and sliced
  • 1 cup of raw organic brown rice
  • 1/2 cup sultanas
  • 1/2 cup mixed nuts and seeds  (I used pepitas, sunflower seeds, pine nuts and flaked almonds)
  • 1 cup fresh rocket (arugula), washed
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh mint leaves
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 lemon, zested and juiced
  • sea salt
  • freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 180 degrees C (356 degrees f). Place your zucchini into a large roasting tray with a good drizzle of olive oil and plenty of salt and pepper. Place into the oven to roast for about 30-40 minutes, depending upon the intensity of your oven. When done, it should be easy to pierce with a knife, the flesh should be glossy and opaque with golden, crunchy edges. When done, set it aside to cool.

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Whilst your zucchini is roasting, rinse your brown rice well in a colander to remove any debris or dirt. Place it into a medium, lidded saucepan with two cups of water. Replace the lid, then bring the mixture to the boil over high heat. When your rice starts to boil, immediately reduce the heat. Allow to simmer slowly for about 20 minutes, or until the liquid is fully absorbed and the grains look light and fluffy. Test one between your fingers; the grain should easily ‘squish’  when pressure is applied. If there is still a hard ‘centre’ to the rice grain it’s not ready… just add a little more water to the pot then replace it over the heat with the lid on. It should soften up in a few minutes.

When your rice is cooked, transfer it into another bowl or serving dish to cool. Drizzle over a little olive oil, and ensure that the grains are separated. Add in your cooked zucchini.

saladmont

Heat a frypan over low heat, then add in your chopped Spanish onion. Fry gently, stirring occasionally until the onion is soft, opaque and slightly caramelised. You want your onion to be sweet, tender and delicious… if it’s browning or crisping too quickly, reduce the heat. When your onion is ready, turn off the heat and add in your sultanas, lemon rind and lemon juice. The residual heat, oil and moisture from the pan should plump up the sultanas and help release the oils from the lemon zest, creating a beautiful dressing for your salad.

When your onion and sultana mixture has cooled, add it to the rice and roasted zucchini. Add in the rocket, mint, nuts and a good pinch of salt and pepper. Mix well, then taste. If it needs more acid, add in a little more lemon juice. If it seems a little dry, add in an extra splash of olive oil.

This salad is delicious on it’s own, with a little goat’s cheese or chickpeas for extra protein, or as a side dish with grilled chicken or fish.

rocketcider

Notes:

  • Brown rice is what most varieties of white rice looked like before the outer hull and bran were removed. As it’s an unrefined wholegrain, it takes longer to cook and has a chewier, nuttier taste and texture. Believe me, this is an entirely good thing.
  • The complete milling and polishing process that converts brown rice into white rice destroys 67% of the vitamin B3, 80% of the vitamin B1, 90% of the vitamin B6, half of the manganese, half of the phosphorus, 60% of the iron, and all of the dietary fibre and essential fatty acids. Read some more of the health benefits of eating rice in it’s wholegrain form, here.
  • Any leftover cooked brown rice makes a delicious breakfast when combined with milk (especially soymilk), cinnamon, raisins and a little honey. You can also add in some fresh fruit, toasted nuts or a spoonful of nut butter. It’s wholegrain, so it will keep your satisfied for much longer than a bowl of Rice Krispies (which, let’s be honest, is also just a bowl of highly processed, nutrient-stripped-then-artifically-enriched rice, albeit crunchy).
  • This recipe also works beautifully with cooked quinoa or cous cous. Alternatively, you can keep to the brown rice, but swap out the roasted zucchini for eggplant (aubergine), the rocket for spinach and the sultanas for roasted cherry tomatoes. Add a drizzle of balsamic vinegar for a delicious Mediterranean twist.

Thanks to the beautiful Amanda Humphreys for use of her ‘2013’ photograph… this woman is a creative goddess, on stage and behind a lens.

I also thought I’d include a photograph that Aaron took of a Willie Wagtail family that’s currently taking up residence in a tree just outside our apartment. This devoted mother has been shielding her little bean-babies from the midday sun (with the fierce temperatures above!) day in and day out for the past two weeks. Poor thing… we’ve been trying to flick them with a little water every now and then. I can’t wait to see the little hatchlings start to fly.

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