Polish Salt-Brined Cucumber Soup with Coconut Milk

cuc_souppAs soon as I wrote the title of this post I realised that probably for the majority of my dear readers salt-brined cucumber sounds much more unusual than coconut milk, but I was so pleasantly surprised to see how such geographically distant products go well together, I decided to post this international version. Anyway, whether it’s coconut milk or the traditional cow’s cream, this is one of the most delicious soups I know and I hope some of you will be tempted to make it. Maybe due to its tanginess or maybe due to the refreshing presence of the dill, I consider it a perfect springtime dish.

Since it’s a very popular soup, every Polish cook has her/his own method. I have based the instructions below on my mum’s recipe with, as always, my own slight modifications, including a lightened option (see the TIPS). I have experimented here with coconut milk instead of adding the traditional cow’s cream, but both options are equally delicious. Though not heavy at all, it’s a nourishing soup with potatoes, so, depending on the amounts served, it can be considered as a full meal (you can serve it with bread).

TIPS: Salt-brined cucumbers are fermented/pickled in a mixture of salt and water, with herbs and spices. They become sour, but not as harsh as vinegared ones. They are also relatively healthy (they have vitamin C, absent in raw untransformed cucumber), unless they contain too much salt of course. They cannot be replaced with vinegared pickles. Apart from Polish, Russian and Ukrainian shops, salt-brined cucumbers can be found in some German or Austrian shops too and I know they are also sold in “normal” organic grocery shops. Not to mention online sources.

If you cannot find fresh or frozen dill, forget this recipe (I must be very strict here because without dill it’s just not the same soup, while dried dill is almost as useless here as dried basil in a caprese salad…). It’s used here in big amounts, so its presence is very important. If dill is not used in your country’s traditional cooking, you might still find it at farmers’ markets and even in some Asian shops (I see it regularly in my Vietnamese/Thai shop). The good news is chopped fill freezes very well, so if your farmers market or Asian shop is far away, buy a big bunch, chop it and freeze. (It also grows very very easily from seeds, even on a window sill). Dill is also very popular in Greek cuisine, so you will find many ways to use your frozen batch.

I always remove fat from my stock, so here, once the stock was ready, strained it and put into the fridge. After several hours the fat will solidify at the top and thus will be easy to remove. You don’t have to follow this procedure of course!

Preparation: minimum 3 hours (depends on the choice of meat and fat removal or not, see TIPS)

Ingredients (serves 4 as a main dish or 6 as a starter):

2 chicken legs (I prefer skinned) or the equivalent of other meat (pork/beef), preferably with bone

4 big salt-brined cucumbers (see the TIPS)

leek leaves

1 big carrot+1 to be added at the end

1/4 celeriac (or 2 stalks celery)

(optional, but worth looking for: 1 small parsley root)

4 medium potatoes

salt, pepper

coconut milk/cream or cow’s liquid cream (2-3 tablespoons per person)

1 big bunch of fresh or frozen dill

Put the meat, the leek leaves, the carrot, the celeriac and parsley root (if you can get it) into a big pan. Cover with water, add some salt and simmer, covered, until the meat falls off the bone (the time depends on the meat, but it’s minimum 3 hours to make sure the stock has deep flavours).

In the meantime grate the salt-brined cucumber (vegetable grater, not the one with smallest holes). Do not throw away the brine! You might discover you prefer your soup even more sour and add it later on.

Place the grated cucumber into a small pan, cover with water and simmer for about 20 minutes.

Put aside.

Once the stock is ready (or rather the meat is tender enough), remove the meat and the carrot. Strain the stock and throw out the remaining cooked vegetables (unless you like them).

Here you can either refrigerate the stock in order to remove fat (see TIPS above) or continue the preparation without the fat removal.

Remove the bones and cut up the meat into bite-sized pieces.

Cut up the cooked carrot and grate the raw one.

Peel the potatoes and cut into bite-sized pieces.

Put back the stock into the pan, add the potatoes and cook until soft.

Then add the grated cucumber, the meat, the carrots and let it simmer for about five minutes.

Adjust the taste with freshly ground pepper, salt and, if you find the soup not tangy enough, add some of the brine from cucumbers.

Just before serving chop some dill to every plate, add a splash of cream or coconut milk and serve.

Asparagus has arrived!

breadtartletasppGreen asparagus is almost a perfect vegetable: it doesn’t need any peeling or scrubbing, is particularly low calorie, has important health benefits (e.g. antioxidants), is ridiculously easy and quick to prepare and, last but not least, is absolutely delicious. Moreover, once we take its traditional luxurious image out of ours heads and let our imagination run wild, we discover it’s one of the most versatile vegetables in the world. In fact, asparagus is fantastic in as different dishes as maki sushi, stir-fry, Indian curry, spring roll or tempura. Apart from its short season, I cannot find a single flaw.

Now that Spanish organic asparagus has appeared (I still wait for the best ones, from the south of France), I cannot imagine my weekly grocery shopping without a precious green bunch carefully places on the top of my bag. I’m still too excited to think of new experiments, but in a couple of weeks I’ll certainly start playing with my beloved vegetable, just like every year. In the meantime I thought my dear readers, especially those who happen to be asparagus lovers too, might find the following suggestions useful:

Asparagus with Chicken and Miso

Asparagus with Chicken and Miso

Asparagus Maki Sushi

Asparagus Maki Sushi

Bread Tartlet with Egg and Asparagus

Bread Tartlet with Egg and Asparagus

Asparagus Teriyaki Pork Rolls

Asparagus Teriyaki Pork Rolls

Chawan Mushi (Egg Custard) with Asparagus

Chawan Mushi (Egg Custard) with Asparagus

Asparagus Tempura

Asparagus Tempura

Filo Rolls with Asparagus, Chorizo and Parmesan

Filo Rolls with Asparagus, Chorizo and Parmesan

Tama Konnyaku with Asparagus

Tama Konnyaku with Asparagus

Rice, Asparagus and Fried Egg

Rice, Asparagus and Fried Egg

Asparagus with Cashew Nuts and Chicken

Asparagus with Cashew Nuts and Chicken

asp_springrollsp

Spring Rolls with Asparagus and Chicken

Indian Coriander Chutney

corianderchutneypOne more fantastic discovery from Meera Sodha’s Made in India. Cooked in Britain: Recipes from an Indian Family Kitchen! This chutney has been the highlight of the past winter moths. Its combination of refreshing, tangy and fiery flavours has such a spring touch, I would almost forget it was just another grey cold day. I have been using it as a spread, as a dip, as a sauce, as a condiment… It is equally good raw and cooked, with seafood, meat or vegetables, with rice or pasta… After at least a dozen different experiments, I  haven’t had a single failure and now that warm weather has arrived, I intend to stretch my list of its use even further. Obviously, I’ll share with you my impressions very soon.

I have slightly changed the recipe, for example replacing the advised lemon juice with my beloved tamarind, so I encourage everyone to buy Meera Sodha’s book for the original and other Indian home cooking treats (as an example you might want to check Roasted Cauliflower I consider the best thing I’ve ever tasted with this vegetable).

TIPS: You need a really huge bunch of coriander here, so buy it at farmers’ markets. If you live in Switzerland, I also advise Aligro shops selling huge bags of coriander.

This recipe is an excellent way to use also branches you discard while adding coriander leaves for example to Indian dishes, so make sure you don’t throw them. Simply buy another bunch and prepare this chutney.

This is a particularly versatile product. As I have mentioned, it can be eaten raw or cooked/simmered. It spices up carbs, vegetables, seafood and meat.

This chutney freezes well if you intend to cook it afterwards (otherwise it’s too mushy to be served fresh) and is an excellent base for a quick weekday meal.

Tamarind is a delicious “acidifier” of Indian – and also Thai – dishes. It is sold either fresh (but usually it’s the sweet snack version) or in hard dried blocks or in ready-to-use jam-like paste (in jars). I definitely prefer the block version because it keeps forever in the fridge (the paste does start growing mould after a long time in the fridge) and has a more lively taste than the paste (it’s dissolved in hot water and then strained to obtain “juice”). I never use the paste, so cannot tell you how much of it you should use; if it’s your choice, try to adjust the amounts to your preferences.

Preparation: about ten minutes

Ingredients (makes enough for a dish with sauce for 4-5 people):

150 g coriander leaves and branches

4 heaped tablespoons unsalted peanuts

1/3 flat teaspoon turmeric

salt

1 heaped teaspoon brown sugar

3 small fresh green chillies (or more/less, depending on your heat resistance), seeds removed (or not, if you want more heat)

3 cm tamarind block (see the TIPS above) or ready-to-use paste (no idea how much)

If you use the tamarind block, put the 3 cm square into a glass and pour 50 ml hot water. Leave for fifteen minutes. (In the meantime start preparing the masala paste and the curry). After this time, mix it well and strain leaving the seeds. You will obtain tamarind “juice”.

Chop the coriander roughly and mix it to a slightly rough paste in a food processor (or grind a mortar).

Taste and adjust the flavours if necessary (you should taste the heat, the tanginess and the sweetness at the same time, but of course their ratio is up to you).

Put into a closed glass container and keep in the fridge for 3-4 days (or freeze for months, but once frozen, you can use it only in cooked version later).

Curry Pie with Leftover Filo Top

filo_crumble1pDo you ever have leftover filo pastry bits? As a filo addict I have those all the time (especially with my individual rolls). Now that I discovered genuine (though expensive) frozen Greek filo, they started to worry me much more than before. A heap of unused small bits of filo suddenly reminded me of a very unusual chicken “pie” spotted in Hairy Bikers’ Perfect Pies: chicken in a creamy sauce topped with crushed filo pieces. It looked original and delicious enough to stay engraved in my memory. I decided to use their idea of filo top, suspecting it would be perfect for any leftover strips and I was right.

I didn’t follow Hairy Bikers’  filling recipe since I happened to have some other leftovers (curry sauce and unused broccoli stalks from Pork and Broccoli in My Favourite Indian Curry). In fact, my filo rescuing plan became a triple leftover dish! I added some chicken meat, mushrooms and a carrot and the result, though looking quite messy, was a meal of delightful creamy and crunchy goodness. The airy crushed filo topping is so good, I am ready to destroy some whole pastry sheets to make it even if I don’t have leftovers!

As I have mentioned, I didn’t use the pie filling recipe from Hairy Bikers’ book, but it seems absolutely delicious, as well as all the other imaginative pies and tarts this huge source of recipes contains, so make sure you check it whether you are a fan of open tarts, British-style covered pies, mini tartlets, pasties or other similar dishes.

TIPS: You can, of course, make the curry from the scratch (see the recipe here) or use any other sauce of your choice (tomato sauce, for example). I had only 250 ml (about 1 cup) leftover curry sauce, so I have stretched it with some additional coconut milk.

Any vegetable or mushroom can be used here, but I’d advise pre-cooking briefly the mushrooms and the tough vegetables (carrots or broccoli stalks) but not broccoli florets or courgettes, for example.

Preparation: about 1 hour

Ingredients (serves two hungry people; fills a 16 x 16 cm baking dish):

1 chicken breast, cut into bite-sized pieces

stalks and branches from one medium brocoli, cut into bite-sized pieces

5 rather big cultivated mushrooms (I have used ones called cremini in US and Canada), cut into four

about 400 ml (about 13.5 fl oz) leftover curry sauce (I had only 250 ml, so I added some coconut milk)

1 medium carrot, cut into thick half slices

about 3 sheets of filo/phyllo (can be whole or leftover strips)

oil or butter or coconut fat to brush filo

Preheat the oven to 200°C (392°F).

Heat the leftover sauce (adding more liquid, such as coconut milk, if needed).

As soon as it starts boiling, add the chicken, the carrots, the brocoli stalks and the mushrooms.

Let it simmer until the chicken is done.

If you use softer vegetables, such as courgette or brocoli florets, put them into the sauce about two minutes before the end (unless you like them rather mushy).

Taste the sauce, adjust the flavours and pour everything into a baking dish (you should have roughly 2/3-3/4 of the height filled; I have used here a 16×16 cm dish.

Spread the filo sheets or torn pieces flat and brush them slightly with the fat of your choice.

(If you use whole filo sheets, not leftovers, cut them into six or more squares).

Crush the filo in your palms and place on top of the curry making sure you cover well the whole dish.

Bake until golden (about 15 minutes).

Pork and Broccoli in My Favourite Indian Curry

pork_currybroccoliWritten with passion and respectful approach for recipes’ origins, Rick Stein’s India is a rare jewel of a book I highly recommend to all the fans of food from this part of the world. I am still far from having tested the whole content, but until now Squid Curry (I wrote about it here) is the most sensational discovery. First, I was thrilled to find my first Indian squid recipe, but most of all, I instantly fell in love with this particular curry sauce (or “gravy”, as apparently some Indians call it) and consider it not only the best Rick Stein’s curry but also my all-time favourite. It’s creamy, fiery, slightly bitter and slightly tangy… and I never get tired of it. After having prepared at least a dozen identical squid curries, I started to try other protein sources, enjoying every single experiment and this most recent one is a perfect example. Pork and broccoli are certainly not staples in India, but I dare say the result does taste and smell wonderfully Indian to me.

Apart from the usual adjustment of amounts, the replacement of frozen or fresh coconut (see the TIPS) with coconut milk and maybe some shortcuts I often try to invent as a lazy cook, this is more or less the original curry sauce, though I encourage you to discover Rick Stein’s book on your own. (Oh, and I always use coconut fat instead of the oil to fry the spices and onion; I love the additional coconut aroma it adds). Since I used here lean pork, I have treated it in a very un-Indian way, marinating it first in sake and salt, to soften the meat. If you use fattier cuts, you don’t need any marinade.

TIPS: The original recipe calls for frozen or fresh coconut, which is then mixed with water. I have never found frozen coconut; as for fresh… I do see it sometimes, but I’m too lazy to break it, peel it and mix (moreover, I’ve heard most coconuts arriving to Europe aren’t very fresh). This is why I use simply coconut milk.

Tamarind is a delicious “acidifier” of Indian – and also Thai – dishes. It is sold either fresh (but usually it’s the sweet snack version) or in hard dried blocks or in ready-to-use jam-like paste (in jars). I definitely prefer the block version because it keeps forever in the fridge and has a more lively taste than the paste (it’s dissolved in hot water and then strained to obtain “juice”). I never use the paste, so cannot tell you how much of it you should use; if it’s your choice, try to adjust the amounts to your preferences.

You can prepare the masala well in advance and keep for about a week in the fridge. You can also freeze it, but while mixing (you need some liquid to obtain a smooth paste) it’s better to add a bit of water instead of coconut milk which is not always perfect texture-wise after defrosting. The pork can be cut and put into marinade the day before you want to eat it.

Do not increase the amounts of any spices (except for chilli) when you prepare this dish for the first time, otherwise you might end up with a slightly bitter sauce (curcuma and mustard seeds are dangerous here).

I don’t eat mushy broccoli, so I add small florets at the end, until they are just heated. If you like very soft broccoli, add it together with the pork.

How to make Indian or Thai coconut milk curries lighter?

Coconut milk might be healthy, but it’s a high calorie and high fat ingredient. If you want to make a dish lighter, you can obviously add less milk, but you can also replace some of it with water or stock (I always skim the fat; it’s very easy after several hours in the fridge). It won’t be so creamy (I know, it won’t be “genuine traditional cuisine” either), but if you eat coconut milk-based dishes as often as I do, you might understand why I do this quite often… Everything depends on the dish and your preferences, but personally I find certain dishes still delicious with half of the milk replaced with water (or stock).

Do not buy low kcal or “light” coconut milk! It’s simply coconut milk with more water than the “standard” version (you can do it on your own and it will cost you -from my experience – at least twice less).

Preparation: about 30 minutes (except for the min. 1 hour marinade)

Ingredients (serves two):

Marinade:

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons sake

Masala paste:

1 teaspoon coriander seeds

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon black mustard seeds

1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds

5 cloves garlic (peeled)

3 fresh red chillies

1 teaspoon powdered turmeric

100 ml/about 1.4 fl oz coconut milk or cream (or, if you can use fresh or frozen grated coconut, combine 50 g of it with 50 ml water)

300 g thinly sliced pork (about 3mm thick); the fatter the cut, the softer it will be, but I’ve used here pork loin and thanks to the marinade and the thin slices it wasn’t tough)

florets from 1/2 big broccoli (divide them into bite-sized pieces)

1 tablespoon coconut fat (or oil of your choice)

1 teaspoon black mustard seeds

1 small onion, sliced

5 garlic cloves, sliced

3 cm ginger, grated into a pulp

2 fresh green chillies, sliced

1/2 Kashmiri chilli powder (or any chilli powder you have)

1 small tomato, chopped (skinned or not)

1 teaspoon salt

3 cm tamarind block piece (or ready-to-use tamarind paste, but adjust the amounts to your taste)

1 teaspoon jaggery or 1/2 teaspoon brown cane sugar

fresh coriander leaves, chopped or left whole

Cut the pork slices into bite-sized pieces. Combine with the marinade ingredients and refrigerate covered for at least one hour.

If you use the tamarind block, place the piece into a glass and pour 50 ml hot water. Leave for fifteen minutes. (In the meantime start preparing the masala paste and the curry). After this time, mix it well and strain leaving the seeds. You will obtain tamarind “juice”.

Prepare the masala paste. Grind all the seeds into a powder in a spice or coffee grinder (you can of course use a pestle and mortar). Add the remaining ingredients and mix well in a food processor (baby food processor is very useful for such pastes), adding the coconut milk/cream ir fresh coconut with water (or, if you want to keep the masala several days or freeze it, add just enough water to make a smooth paste).

Heat the oil and fry mustard seeds at medium heat until they start popping. Add the onion and stir-fry it for ten minutes at medium heat until it starts browning. Add the garlic, the ginger, the green chilli and fry for one more minute. Finally, add the masala paste, the pork, the chilli powder, the tomato, salt and simmer for 10 minutes until the pork is cooked. Add the 1/2 tamarind water and sugar and finally the broccoli florets. Heat for 30 seconds. Adjust the flavours (add more sugar or tamarind juice or water or coconut milk, if using…).

Serve sprinkled with coriander leaves.