Category Archives: Mediterranean

Pick-Me-Up Spinach, Egg Drop & Parmesan Toast Soup Recipe

How should I explain better my appreciation of this soup in a few words? Umm, remember when Chef Sean Brock is reminiscing about his favorite mom’s chicken soup dumplings ‘In the Mind of a Chef ’ saying it’s the best dumpling dish he ever had? This dish is better, period. A bowl of it will make you feel as good as gold…
I make this vivid green soup at least four times a year, mostly around mid-seasons: summer and winter solstice; spring and autumn equinox. It is one of my favorite complete meals which never fail to surprise with the taste, texture and color. The consistency and color of it can vary depending on the amount of ingredients (which you can modify according to your taste – more/less spinach, greens, eggs, stock or Parmesan bread). This soup is very forgiving: the different stages of the eggs’ coagulation depending on a temperature or cooking method would deliver smooth, ragged or clouded broth. Nevertheless, all forms of it deliver a fine bowl of comforting, homey goodness: full-bodied yet very light. If you like the Greek soup Avgolemono , this egg drop soup might be your next favorite. If the Avgolemono’s color is pure yellow, this one is bright green and always reminds of the nature’s renewal. Which we are still some ten weeks (hopefully less) away from…
This soup is an immune system booster and will pick you up fast whenever you need. We felt we badly needed it last Sunday upon coming back from St-Paddy’s parade in a form of half-humans/half-icicles who haven’t felt their toes up until dinner. It brought us back to life fast.  
I can’t exactly state the origin of this soup other than disclose that this recipe is coming from the magazine clips of the cooking journal of my dear French Canadian mother-in-law. It is very close to Italian egg drop soup called Stracciatella and may be it is, by virtue of its ingredients including Parmesan, although most of the Italian versions have some pasta and/or herb in it instead of the Parmesan toast and spinach. I tentatively tag it as an Italian dish, but if you happen know the exact origin of it, I am all ears.  
I couldn’t resist messing with the egg’s chemical formula having studied its molecular magic as an ingredient. Few times, instead of following the recipe (below) method, I would mix fresh, spinach, herbs and eggs with a bit, or a lot of warm stock in the blender. It makes some white foam on top, which I discarded carefully. Other wise, it makes absolutely stunning emerald-colored mix, which when warmed through under the boiling point, would granulate into tiny green egg drop microspheres giving luxurious velvety texture and feel to the dish. I warm it through whisking carefully, without reaching the boiling point; then place it in the 400F oven for 15-20 minutes topped with Parmesan toasts. Voila – viva the cooking experiments!
This method delivers bright green, grainy texture that is really worth showcasing. Not bringing the soup to the boiling point also helps to preserve a lot of healthy enzymes in the dish, which you will find packed with flavors. Equally, I sometimes swap spinach for kale, Swiss chard or arugula, add a bit of garlic and sometimes, during the flu season, a dash of minced ginger. Spinach version is my favorite however because it doesn’t overpower the delicate taste of eggs and stock. You may wish to follow or not these leads, the results will be great anyways.
Complex in taste and highly invigorating, it is yet very simple and fast to pull off. Eggs, fresh spinach, home-made broth, sliced baguette (or other kind of stale bread of your preference) and Parmesan are five core ingredients to it. I like to also add a big bunch of parsley to bring the nutritional and detox value of it to even higher level.
Sometimes I use this simple trick to cut the rounds of the stale bread with the shot glass to have a better appeal and coverage especially if you are serving the soup to the guests.

Parsley is a known kidney tonic and the powerful antioxidant along with spinach, which also boosts the iron stores in the body, they help strengthen bones, detoxify and heal. The eggs nourish liver, heart and kidneys, while the home-made stock comforts and supports the stomach and digestive tract with minerals, glucosamine (in case of chicken stock), iodine, etc. 

Should you wish to make this soup a real taste bomb, try to assemble it with the ingredients of possibly highest quality, including: free range eggs, spinach and parsley from your own garden, stock made with organic chicken/veggies and so on. Ahhh, I can’t wait to welcome spring to our territory…
Bon Appétit!

Yields: 4 portions
2 tablespoons butter or ghee
6 cups packed, rinsed and minced spinach leaves, equal to 1-2 bunches fresh spinach, OR 10 ounces frozen spinach
1 cups fresh parsley, minced (optional)
Salt and freshly ground (preferably white) pepper
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
6-7 cups of hot broth, chicken or vegetarian
4 bread slices (or more depending on a size), grilled (* select gluten free if necessary)
½ cup Parmesan, shredded
Preheat the oven to 400F. Add butter to a big sauce pan or Dutch oven and heat to medium high. Add the minced spinach and parsley, stir for 1 minute. Add one cup of stock, mix and season with salt and pepper. Set aside.  Beat the eggs in a bowl and gently stir them into the spinach mix with the whisk.  Add the rest of the hot stock, mix well with the spinach-egg mix and check the seasoning. Place the grilled bread on top of the soup and sprinkle generously with Parmesan. Place into the pre-heated oven uncovered for 20 minutes, or until the bread and Parmesan dumplings are golden brown. Ladle into the bowls and serve immediately.

Sesame-Encrusted Savory Easter Bread

A beautiful loaf: crisp and golden brown on the outside, slightly moist and tender on the inside;  topped with sesame, cumin, poppy and caraway seeds. The sesame seeds give that wonderful nuttiness while the crushed herb seeds in the dough give it a great flavor without overwhelming the taste. The cumin, poppy, caraway and fennel seeds make it super savory. But the best things about this bread are: it is super-easy to make (even for a novice); it makes a whole lot of presentation; AND, it keeps very well. Let’s say, if you spend a few hours making it on Good Friday night, wait for lots of kudos coming your way on Sunday.
This bread is a close cousin of Greek street treat Koulouri (as well as Turkish Simit; Bulgarian Gevrek, Serbian Devrek, etc.), a ring shaped bread with sesame seeds, which, I’m sure many of you tried while traveling to those places, although it has zero sweetness compared to the bagel-shaped cousins.
Because it is full of flavors, I personally love it slightly toasted, smeared with a bit of ghee. Primarily though, this apple of the eye is a perfect party patter. Serve it sliced alongside a dip, olive salad, gourmet cold cuts, interesting crudité… and it WILL make the Easter party goers of every kind happy. And of course with its visually appealing shape and seeded crust, it makes a remarkable centerpiece statement.
From personal experience, making this bread with kids is fun (especially the rolling dough in seeds part) as well as perfect activity for kids to learn about life beyond the cream eggs. Once ready, koulouri bread also travels very well in a picnic basket.  My kids used to love to bring it to the farm visits where they could also secretly give some to animals… which is why this bread became so distinctly and wonderfully Easter to me.
Not to mention that it reminds me of my travels to Cyprus, its humble and honest food and picturesque villages perched in the mountains, where they bake this bread outdoors in a brick-clay oven . Well, we don’t have this luxury here, but no biggie: a few prep steps and it will bake perfectly well in the regular oven filling the house with the smell of freshly baked bread and herbs and putting everyone in a special peaceful holiday mood.  

Happy Easter to All of You!

Yields: one big loaf
4 cups white bread flour, plus extra for dusting
Pinch of mastika & mechlebe, OR ground fennel/anise seeds
1 ½ tsp sea salt
1 oz (30 g) fast action dried yeast
¼ (50 ml) cup olive oil
1 ¼ warm water
3 ½ oz (100 g) sesame seeds (mix of white and black if you wish)
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp caraway seeds
1 tbsp poppy seeds
Grind mastika and mechlebe, OR fennel seeds with a pestle and mortar to a smooth powder. Combine the flour, salt, yeast, olive oil and water in a large bowl and blend together. Add mastika & mechlebe OR fennel powder and knead for 6-7 minutes. Let the dough stand in the bowl covered to rest for 1 hour.
Tips the sesame seeds, poppy and cumin seeds into a big bowl and pour over a tablespoon or so of water to moisten the seeds, ballon them and release their juice.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Tip the dough out onto a lightly floured counter and shape into a ball. Drop the dough into the dampened seeds and turn until covered in the seeds, then place the dough on the baking sheet and let rise for 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 425F (220C). Score a line all the way around the side of the bread and two slashes on top with the knife. Bake for 30 minutes, or until golden brown, then transfer to the wire rack to cool. Slice only after the bread cooled completely.
Adapted from ‘100 Great Breads’ by Paul Hollywood, March 2004, Cassell Illustrated.

Roasted Quail à la Milanese

Ladies and Gentlemen, I humbly invite you to indulge in my little menu with the succulent roasted quail mounted on top of sautéed veggies with pronounced Italian taste…  and the aromatic puddle of juices waiting to be picked up with the bite of a savory bread pudding (my version of holiday stuffing). For the contrast and/or a drop of color (not to mention the amount of fiber and nutriments) I added some steamed Brussels sprouts with orange zest to complete the unbelievable harmony of seasons in this recipe. Can you think of any more elegant setting for a holiday dinner on a budget?
I came up with this combination idea after some hours of mentally deconstructing a holiday bird and the stuffing (while driving long distances or on the bus), in a way you can still have fun with both.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas turkey dinners just like Chevy Chase’s, or Eddie Murphy’s characters or any other person who likes to chill out with the family.
This time though I was craving some new age flair for a change.  Something that would not require any horse power to manipulate with and would not cork the fridge the day after.  Something more visually and socially appealing and much more exciting for the taste buds than a turkey, and… that can actually be made in advance?AH! Hopefully I just got your attention!
This little quirky bird came to my response.  I know, I know, it is not much to eat, it’s messy and primal and it is not always working well in recipes. I’ve tried and failed the ones with all kind of sweet marinades over the years (allowing the marinades to destroy the delicate flavor of the bird) and that was the reason I got cold feet about it.
Until I discovered this absolutely amazing and easy Chef Jean Soulard’s recipe and am now proudly presenting it to you with almost no alterations.  The only thing I added to it was one jalapeno pepper for a bit of a kick.  So, NO, the recipe has nothing to do with my once upon a time travel to Milan where my luggage (not heart) was lost without a trace. But, YES, it is an Italian inspired dish I found in the French Canadian chef’s book. And the secret of its success is in the sauce…
Quails are available, relatively inexpensive (go to the Chinese supermarket for the best $ deal) and make a stunning addition to the festivities. Why do you think high-end restaurant menus have this bird so often on their holiday menus?  It’s easy and fast to cook, it makes a hell of a presentation (because of its small size) and (when cooked properly) it tastes divine. Also, don’t forget that quail has less than 300 calories per bird (yes, you will get much more from just a few bites of pigs in the blanket); it is lower in fat and higher in protein than chicken and is a great source of nutriments and is considered a low-fat energy booster. PS: Game meat is my next table resolution for 2014: to fight hormones, antibiotics, etc., make portions smaller and add some forgotten vigor to the plate.
If you are still not convinced, here is the best thing about the recipe: you can make the dish up to two days ahead! Or, did I already mention that? Keep it in the fridge and then just warm it up in the 400F oven for 10 minutes (buttering and broiling the top if necessary with the tips of the legs covered with aluminum foil not to burn).  Sure, if you serve it immediately upon cooking it will give you a tender juicy flesh, which some people are looking for. However, if you put it aside and let the juices ”cure” for 24-48 hours, the meat will be less juicier, but will become smokier and gamier and more acceptable for those, for example, who are not the admirers of the ”rare” condition.  And, by the way, no one has to know you did not cook it from skratch 15 minutes ago…  Check out the images below (right after cooking and after 36 hours in the fridge) to see the difference. 

And so it’s time to dust off our best cutlery and open a bottle of good wine and prepare to celebrate Christmas. Be deliciously Merry and have a Happy Holiday! Cheers!

Wait, what about the dessert? Good question – I saved that for a bang tomorrow!  Oops, who am I kidding, it’s Christmas Eve tomorrow and I am not home alone!

Merry Christmas to All of You!
Quail à la Milanese (Cailles mijoutees comme a la Milan)
Yields: 4-8 portions (two birds per person are suggested, but you can easily go with one)
Time: 20 minutes to prepare/20 minutes cooking time
8 quails
30g (2 tbsp) butter
15 ml (1 tbsp) olive oil
6 bacon slices, cut in small pieces
2 onions, minced
3 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and cut in cubes
1 red pepper, seeded and cut in julienne
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and sliced into julienne (optional)
2 garlic cloves, minced
20 black olives,
30 ml (2 tbsp) fresh basil, chopped
Salt & pepper
In the large Dutch oven or skillet, brown the quails on all sides in the mix of butter and oil for 5 minutes. Salt, pepper and set aside. Keep warm.
In the same skillet, add bacon and onions; sauté for 5 minutes.  Add tomatoes, peppers, garlic and olives. Mix, place the quails over the vegetables and let simmer for 15 minutes. Five minutes before the end of cooking, add basil. If desired, broil quails for an additional minute for a crunch and/or presentation. Dress the plates and serve the quails on the mountain of sautéed vegetables.
Adapted from: Le Grand Soulard de la Cuisine by Jean Soulard: 1150 recettes classiques au gout du terroir quebecois ©Les Editions La Presse, 2013

Say Sardine: Part I

It’s fun to catch the last glimpse of summer having a little Grilled Sardines alfresco party. Succulent, fatty and so-Mediterranean, freshly grilled sardines taste totally different from canned and are sometimes called ‘’brain food’’ for their high nutritional value. Sardines are packed with Omega 3, B-vitamins, selenium, niacin, calcium and many other good things, and, are unbelievably tasty.

Which is why, their lusty grilled aroma remains as alluring as ever all along the beaches of, practically, any Mediterranean country (and, of course, Portugal). Who can ever forget the traditional Malaga’s chiringuito experience with sardines skewered on bamboo sticks and grilled over the drift wood in an old fishing boat berthed in the sand? Or Lisbon’s favourite open-air salt-packed sardinhas grelhadas served with a simple potato, tomato and grilled capsicum salad?
Curiously, my first grilled sardines know-how hails from one disastrous dim-sum dining experience. The story is actually worth telling. Imagine a cold winter Sunday morning. You read an article from a major press (La Presse), which goes: ‘’… you can have tons of delicious treats and a mountain of crisp-fried sardines at this place for just a few dollars … will make you come back to this newly opened dim-sum restaurant again and again…’’ Yumm, sounds so attractive! Sure enough, I go to check out the place. When I arrive the place is packed, so I park myself between the doors with many others. Next thing I notice, I am squeezed between people who all have well-spread herpes labialis (cold sore) on their face. I feel threatened. My first instinct tells me to ‘’FLEE’’, but my perseverance wins so I just cover my face with the scarf and try not to breeze. I think about the reward I am about to get – sardines… My turn comes up and I am rushing into a crowded dining hall to be placed among other sardine lovers. A grim-faced female server stops by my table, says something in Chinese and hands me down few baskets from her cart. I ask her if I can have some sardines. The woman gives me the stink eye and leaves without an answer. I take a bite of the gluey samples in hope that sardines are coming with the next cart. The slippery-cold bock choy and dumplings which taste like a cross between radish burp and slime bring me back to the thought that, perhaps, leaving the place at once was not such a bad idea. But I am on the mission to get sardines… Another elderly server comes by and slides down something fried that looks like pig-ear crisp, although can be a sliced cardboard soaked overnight and deep-fried this morning. I begin to speak louder and gesticulate to make it clear that I want sardines and I don’t see them among the dishes served. She answers something in Chinese (again) and drifts away with her cart leaving me no options but to go look for a manager. I find him in the steamy kitchen which smells like rotten cabbage and can convert to a ‘’Day of the Sorcerer’’ movie set in a snap.  He confirms to me that they run out of sardines (what?!).  More than ‘’a few dollars’’ short, I leave the place praying not to develop a sore on my lip…  But I am now even more determined to get bloody sardines. I have two options: I can go high-end (Fereira Café, or similar) and be treated for sure, OR, I can go to La Mer (the fish market) and buy some fresh sardines and cook them myself. And since my belly is bloated with crap which La Presse journalist called ‘’delicious treats’’, and my daily resto budget is gone, I do the latter.  Voilà, with a bit of patience, garlic, lemon, olive oil and salt I finally succeed to have a mountain of freshly-roasted sardines for a few dollars indeed. I celebrate this with Rhapsody in Blueand a glass of chilled Rosé…
My point is, as long as you can buy two pounds of frozen sardines at $2.99 (at marche Adonis, for example), you don’t have to go through my try-&-fail dining experience and can successfully feed a small army on a budget with some of the following fool-proof tips. 
Frozen sardines are much easier to clean than fresh: use your fingers to shave the scale in a bowl of water (I find using the back of the knife still breaks the tender flesh); slit the underbelly and pull the guts out while the fish is still half-frozen. Leave the head and tail on or cut them off if you prefer. For fresh sardines and more elaborate technique of making sardine butterflied (en papillote), follow these tips. I personally don’t like to fiddle with that, especially when sardines are to be grilled: the bones play the major role in developing umami during the cooking process. Here are some of my favorite ways to cook and serve grilled sardines:
International: marinated in lemon/garlic/parsley/olive oil/salt/pepper sauce for 15-30 minutes, grilled on medium-high for 3 minutes on each side. Excellent with carrot-leeks side dish.
Portuguese: simple and fast – encrust sardines with layers of kosher salt; keep in the fridge for an hour or so, then just wash the salt off, pat dry and throw them on a grill (again, 3 minutes each side). PS: sardines cooked this way are often not gutted (it is best though to apply this technique with fresh sardines). Serve with lemon wedges and simple salad of your choice.
Spanish: in escabeche sauce (mix of olive oil, a bit of red/white vinegar, garlic and herbs simmered for 10 minutes) splashed over the grilled sardines and served cool – utterly delicious and well worth trying.
Greek: wrapped in wine leaves. This is one of my preferred techniques – vine leaf wrap prevents the fat from burning, helps to manipulate the grill easily and keeps the sardine flesh moist. Works well on the frying pan too. 
Good tip: use wilted lettuce or wild grape leaves (popular weed in our backyards, see the image below), if you don’t have real vine leaves handy. (FYI, you can also make an awesome sauce for the grilled meat from wild grapes.) Just collect the biggest wild vine leaves, rinse and simmer them in salted water (2 tablespoons/1 liter) for 5-7 minutes. Drain and let cool before wrapping.
PS: Please do not confuse the wild grapes though with Menispermum Canadense plant which is poisonous. 

 Simple, healthy and unforgettable!
2 lbs (1 kg) or 12-16 medium to large size sardines
12-16 vine leaves in brine, washed
1 lemon, juiced
3 tablespoons olive oil (optional)
2 cloves garlic, minced (optional)
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, minced (optional)
1/3 teaspoon fresh or dry thyme, minced (optional)
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Scale sardines with your fingers under the running water, gut them and wash. Pat dry and rub the fish with a mix of lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and herbs, OR just sprinkle with lemon juice, salt and pepper. Wrap sardines individually with vine leaves rinsed from the brine. Preheat the grill to medium-high. Grill for 3-5 minutes on each side or until flesh flakes well when tested. Serve with lemon wedges, crusty bread, chilled white or rosé and lotsa napkins. OR, serve grilled sardines as meze with a shot of ouzo. Enjoy your alfresco!