July 09, 2014

Strawberry Sorbet Brownie Sandwiches

Are you ready for pure summer decadence? I hope so, cuz here it comes.

As you may know, I'm a fan of frozen desserts that don't require an ice cream maker, as in this one, and this one. And I've been oggling homemade DIY ice cream sandwiches online for years but they just seemed like one of those Martha Stewart Pinterestey things that real people don't actually make.

But seeing as we've been swimming in strawberries lately, I've been racking my brain to make every strawberry recipe I can come up with. There's been strawberry scones, balsamic strawberry thyme jam (hell yeah!), strawberry cheesecake brownies, strawberry muffins, chocolate-dipped strawberries (a nod to my sis), and of course, strawberry shortcake (nod to my Grammy). Yes, seriously, it's been busy in this kitchen. And I'm almost sick of strawberries. Almost. But not quite.

And then in the middle of all that strawberry mayhem, I had an epiphany about strawberry sorbet and how dead easy it is to make it. And how if your berries are ever so sweet and ripe, you barely have to add anything at all to turn them into creamy frozen deliciousness. And after that, making chewy brownies to smush that sorbet into just seemed like the right thing to do. 

So without exactly intending to, I made an ice cream sandwich! And guess what? It didn't take long and there wasn't really much to it. And also, I should mention, now I'm an addict. This recipe seriously needs to come with a warning label. Though now that I've realized ice cream sandwiches are right up there with burgers as ridiculously obnoxious and difficult to photograph and make look good on camera, I probably won't be making anymore of these for the blog anytime soon, haha!

So this is the first year we've grown strawberries. We felt like proud parents. We grew 5 different varieties, each with its own strengths and weaknesses, and it's been kind of a test run to see if we could have an organic strawberry 'pick-your-own' in coming years. We've got a lot to learn still about soil fertility, crop rotation, how to manage those pesky weevels and slugs, and how to prevent mold damage. But we're making progress and for a first year, it was quite a success.

Growing strawberries falls somewhere between utter delight (picture filling quarts for the market in the breezy evening sunset with the birds singing overhead and the midcoast Maine hills looking gloriously lush and green) and pure pain on those gruelling days of weeding in the hot sun, days when the blackflies are out with a vengeance and unless you've had your 8 full hours of beauty sleep (or 4 cups of coffee), weeding one more row or picking one more quart seems like an eternity of backache. We joked that it was an emotional roller coaster picking the berries because one moment we'd be in a patch where we'd Oooh and Aaah and pat ourselves on the back at how juicy and perfect our beloved berries were, and then a few feet later, we'd be cursing and almost in tears because every one of our largest, most beautiful berries were either devoured by slugs or mice or covered in mold.

But the bottom-line is that we already can't wait to do it all over again next year. And the biggest joy of all, was in knowing that we grew these babies without a single harmful chemical and that the critters that share this land and berry patch with us are all happy and well, no matter how angry it made us when they partook in our strawberry feasting.

For my strawberry sorbet brownie sandwich recipe, go to this week's PBS Food blogpost.

July 01, 2014

Tunisian Spinach Rice or Riz Djerbien

I will never forget the first time I ate this dish. 

I was visiting my dear friend Synda in Tunisia, and her downstairs neighbour who is from the island of Djerba had offered to make us a big bowl of this rice, prepared in the authentic Djerbian way. We had barely eaten anything that day in anticipation of this meal, so by the time Khalti Baya called us downstairs, we were two very, very hungry girls. We sat in her tiny dark living room and she ceremoniously emerged from her kitchen with the largest bowl I'd ever seen, filled with a deep red rice flecked with dark green. The steamy fragrance emanating from the magical rice was out of this world. We each grabbed a spoon and dove in, eating straight out of the same bowl in traditional Tunisian style. Well. Our mouths began to burn, our cheeks turned bright red, and we broke into a sweat. But we couldn't slow our voracious feasting down because it was one of the most delicious things we had ever tasted in our lives. So we just kept eating and eating, moaning and panting through the pain and laughing with pleasure, sweat pouring down our faces, mouths on fire. My whole head felt like the lid on a boiling kettle of water, whistling and ready to pop right off. The memory is seared into my brain forever as an oddly wonderful blend of agony and delight. I guess that's why people like spicy food so much, it gives you such a strange pleasure high. 

It's a challenge to exactly recreate the magic of Khalti Baya's "Rouz Djerbi" or "Riz Djerbien" as it's called in Tunisia, but Synda's version is equally delicious, though a bit less spicy, especially when she makes it for a western audience :-) But you can adapt this recipe to the level of heat you like, adding more hot peppers or cayenne if you wish. And of course, if you can get your hands on some real Tunisian harissa, throw in a couple tablespoonfuls as well!

One thing I love about this recipe is how you simply mix all the ingredients in one giant bowl. Then steam the whole thing for an hour. So aside from the rinsing and chopping of vegetables, it's really fairly quick and easy to prepare.

Be sure to use a long grain white rice such as basmati, and not the short sweet brown rice you see in the above video, I made the mistake of thinking I could use another kind of rice than what is used in Tunisia and it was too heavy and sticky in the final dish. 

You can sub other greens in lieu of the spinach, but try to use spinach if you can, it will yield the best results. The gorgeous spinach you see in the video is from the one and only Hatchet Cove Farm in Maine. A large leaf, freshly harvested local organic spinach is recommended, if available.

As they say in Tunisia, shehia taeeba (bon app├ętit)!

For the recipe, visit my post on PBS Food.

June 25, 2014

Zrir and the story of Alexander's birth

Every now and then, I lack the motivation to post on this blog, and I forget why I started Kitchen Vignettes in the first place. I sometimes need to be reminded by others, and Food Riot's recent article did a great job of that, articulating it so simply: blogging is a way to share stories through food. Because the recipes we make tell the stories of our lives, the people we love, where we've been, the adventures we've had... And so behind the recipe I'm sharing with you today is a story about the magic of giving birth, and also about a marvellous friendship that spans across many years and a great big ocean. It's a story I began to tell you in my last post, and which I'll continue here.

There are times when life presents you with an opportunity to live something different, something really special. Something to crack your heart open a little wider. These past two months spent as my dear friend Synda's birth companion will always stand out in my mind as one of the most precious periods of my life.

Synda and I met on a cross-cultural exchange programme 18 years ago, young and eager to get to know each other's countries. We lived and worked together for close to 7 months in Quebec and then in Tunisia. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship, and little did we know our adventures together had just begun! 

A couple months ago, Synda bravely arrived all by herself from Tunisia with a big pregnant belly and the hope of giving her baby the gift of Canadian citizenship. She arrived in Nova Scotia when the cold April winds were still blowing strong. And together, we cooked, laughed, walked, and danced our way through the last weeks of her pregnancy, waiting impatiently for spring to truly arrive, and for Alexander to make his grand appearance. He finally decided to come at the end of an endless grey spell of cold and rain, and like a true Tunisian, he brought the warm glorious sunshine with him on the day he arrived. 

Synda was in active labour for close to 24 hours, and she bravely chose to have a natural birth with no medical interventions, even though her previous birth had been by C-section.

With the support of her amazing doula, and a crew of incredibly supportive friends, she was able to have the birth she wished for, spending all but the last 2 hours of labour at home.

It's almost impossible to find the words to describe the joy that Synda and I shared and how strong the bond between us became after living such a grand experience together. But I believe that's what pictures are for. To tell a thousands words when actual words fail you. 

Synda and Alexander are now happily returned home to Tunis and reunited with their family. It makes me tear up every time I imagine them all meeting little Alex for the first time. Putting this blogpost and video together was a wonderful way for me to remember how special our time together was. I plan to visit them this winter, inshallah, and I already can't wait to hold a somewhat bigger Alex in my arms again.

Synda and I wanted to share the recipe for Zrir with you. Zrir is a nutritious dessert that was traditionally given to new mothers in Tunisia, to help them regain their strength and also to help with their milk production after childbirth. The tradition evolved into a special treat that is served whenever a visitor comes to meet a newborn baby and congratulate the new mom. The sesame seeds, hazelnuts, honey, and butter that Zrir is made of are very nourishing so it is preciously served in small elegant glasses with tiny spoons. 

Synda says that in Tunisia, each family's Zrir is quite different. Her version is creamy and caramel-like though still very thick, but others make a harder, quite compact and crumbly Zrir, which is also delicious. The recipe for Zrir is therefore very adaptable. It contains 4 simple ingredients but you can vary the amounts based on personal preference. For instance, if you prefer a sweeter and softer Zrir, you can add more honey.

When I've made Zrir myself, I have not been able to achieve the fine smooth, caramel-like consistency of Synda's Zrir. I think there is a little magic in the way she prepares it. It also takes a lot of patience to grind hazelnuts and sesame seeds into such a smooth paste. And I believe therein lies part of the secret to a good creamy Zrir: the hazelnut and sesame pastes must be as smooth and buttery as possible before the honey and butter are added. Because this can take so long if you don't have a solid food processor, I am inclined to try substituting  store-bought tahini for the sesame seeds next time I make it. I'm not sure Synda will approve, but I'll keep you posted!

Makes enough for about 10 servings

2 cups whole hazelnuts
2 cups white sesame seeds
1/3 cup butter
1/2 cup honey (more if you wish)
1/4 cup pine nuts (optional garnish)

In a heavy skillet toast the hazelnuts on low heat for about 5 to 10 minutes or until they get golden and fragrant. Cool them and then rub them between your hands to release their skins. Don't worry if some of the skins remain, just try to release and discard as much of the skins as you can. Toast the sesame seeds as well for about 3 to 5 minutes on low heat or until fragrant. Watch them carefully so they don't burn! 

In a small saucepan, melt together the honey and butter. Remove from heat as soon as they've turned to liquid. 

Place the toasted sesame seeds in a food processor and grind until they begin turning into a paste or nut butter consistency. This may take quite a while, depending on how strong your food processor is. If your processor isn't powerful enough, you may want to try using a coffee grinder, as Synda did in the video. It is painstaking but necessary to achieve the right consistency. Repeat this process with the hazelnuts. Pour the hazelnut and sesame butters into a smallish heavy-bottomed pot. Place on low heat and add half of the honey-butter mixture to the sesame-hazelnut mixture. Stir until a homogeneous cream starts to form. Add the remaining butter and honey and continue stirring until the whole thing is creamy. As soon as it starts to bubble, remove from heat and allow to cool slightly before serving in small cups. As the Zrir cools, it will harden. Garnish with pine nuts if you wish. Zrir will keep for several weeks in a glass jar. Enjoy!

At the airport, just before they boarded the plane for the first leg of their journey home (I cried a river!)