Saturday, 26 October 2013

Spring brings Asparagus, Onion Weed, and Nasturtiums to the plate

Spring in Auckland has crept up and surprised me - I really didn't see it coming.  It seems just a couple of weeks ago that the gracious Plane trees lining our streets gave us an open view to the sky.

Plane Tree archway down Picton Street, Ponsonby

Newly clothed with green they lean together to create the charming archways that are a feature of Auckland's leafy suburbs.  The trees leafing up, longer days, and packed garden centres are clues that there is definitely a change of season.

I know spring is here when asparagus arrives.  Asparagus is the first vegetable of the new growing year.  Price wise, now is a good time to eat asparagus as there is plenty at the markets and in the shops.

Another spring time resident on our property, and most likely in yours, is often cursed by gardeners as a nuisance.  For me wild onion or onion weed is a spring onion alternative and it's free! To harvest, use a fork (unless the ground is very soft with rain) otherwise you will fail to get the small bulbs out. Eating them is a most satisfying way to keep your wild onion weed under control.  They take a little time to wash and sort but they are really tasty.
The onion weed with its distinctive clusters of white flowers marked with fine
green lines.  You can eat all parts of this weed, the small onion bulbs,
the stems and the flowers .  Test that its not a decorative bulb by running
your hand down the stem and it will smell of onion.

Spring inspires us all to get back into salads. Here's a way to make one bunch of asparagus go a long way.  This salad could be a satisfying lunch on its own or a wonderful side to the first barbequed sausage of the season.
My Risoni salad as photographed by my daughter Tansy with a proper camera

Risoni Asparagus Salad with Onion Weed and Nasturium Flowers

This salad because can fool you. It's made from Risoni (pronounced ree-soh-nee) and while it could be mistaken for rice, it's actually a type of pasta. It's also known as risi (Italian for rice) and is sometimes referred to as orzo, although this tends to be slightly larger.  Risoni in Italy is often used in soups.

 I really like to use Risoni for  salads - because it looks like rice but has a smooth soft texture that takes up the flavours of olive oil, herbs and lemon to create a salad that is eaten with relish in our house. 

I was missing my old glass lemon squeezer so Peter found me this
wonderful kitchen tool, its a lemon squeezer, zest and fine grater all in one..
its so useful and only cost $5


One bunch of asparagus (or as much as you like)
juice of a lemon
3-4 Tbsp olive oil
3/4 Cup of Rizo pasta
a handful of walnuts chopped
Preserved lemon rind finely chopped (optional but really gives this salad a lift)
About 1/2 cup of chopped onion weed bulbs and white part of the stems
Salt and Pepper
Generous bunch of herbs chopped- whatever is available
Alternatively if you have some pesto you could add 1-2 tbsp (to taste)
Cos or any lettuce leaves
On the base of risoni build up the flavours with herbs or pesto, spring onions
or onion weed, chopped nuts (optional) and then add the lemon juice and
olive oil to taste and then add sliced up asparagus.

Cook the risoni pasta as you would any other dried pasta - with plenty of well salted water.  I use 3/4 of a cup of dried pasta and this made plenty of salad for 3.  Once cooked (don't overcook it or it will all stick together and not free flow) pour into a sieve and run cold water through the pasta to separate.

While the risoni is cooking, also cook the asparagus.   You could oil them and simply grill them, but for this recipe, I prefer to cook them in a high sided pan in salted boiling water until "just" cooked. It only takes 1-2 minutes.

Make sure you don't include the end woody bits.  I simply bend the asparagus holding the stalk end until it snaps.   It breaks in the place where the stems are soft.   You may think what a waste but you don't want to chew on woody asparagus.

Take out of the hot water immediately and spread out on a tea towel to cool quickly. This will ensure the asparagus remains a good green.

You can use more parsley and herbs for this
recipe than I did here as I was restricted by the
quantity available.  Two tablespoons of parsley
per person gives you your daily vitamin K requirement.

Next chop up your herbs.  I use whatever herbs I have around - parsley, I nearly always use, and on this occasion added some fresh mint that goes really well with asparagus, a little fennel and coriander.  In the summer tarragon and basil are great additions too.

Put all the ingredients together, adding the oil and lemon juice last and to taste.  You may not need to use all your lemon or you may want more.  It's so important to taste your salad to ensure you have a good balance of flavours.

I served this salad on a bed of mini cos lettuce that gave a crunchy contrast to the soft flavourful risoni.
I added two of my favourite edible flowers nasturium and calendula petals. Both these plants are flowering now and I find their bright colours make for a happy and tasty salad.   Nasturtiums are also called Indian Cress.  The flowers give a peppery bite to the salad.

I discovered a great blog and will try this recipe  Garden Betty's Nasturtium Pesto
when I find enough nasturtiums.

Photo from Mens that I liked.

Asparagus is a powerhouse vegetable and I discovered a great description of the health benefits of this first vegetable of spring on   UK Mens Health in an article titled "Four Reasons to Eat Asparagus"
They also have recipes and suggest using asparagus in risotto...I whole-heartedly agree.

In spring at the Otago Farmers Market in Dunedin everyone waits in anticipation for the asparagus from Palmerston.  It's sought after because it is so fresh. There is no comparison with the asparagus you buy from shops.  Asparagus quickly deteriorates, eating its own sugars, so to taste the sweetest asparagus you need to grow it yourself, or buy directly from growers, or at a farmers market.

Peter seeking shade and smelling the pelagonians
at Auckland Botanical Gardens

It's Labour Weekend.  Traditionally this is a time to plant your potatoes and other spring crops.   Do take some time out from work to just stop and enjoy the warmth, soft colours and birdsong of spring.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Secret to Light and Fluffy Oat Pancakes

In our house oat pancakes are a breakfast favourite.   Now, oat pancakes are not usually associated with "light and fluffy" but I have discovered just the right proportion of oats to flour to avoid heaviness. The secret to light pancakes is aerating the mix and I thank one of my favourite cooks Lois Daish for the tip.

You don't need oats at all but I like the added health properties of soaked oats and the nutty flavour.

One of the benefits of eating a breakfast that contains oats is that the oat-beta glucan in oat fibre slows down the increase in blood sugar levels after the meal.  When the oat-beta glucan is digested it forms a gel which makes the contents of your stomach and the small intestine more viscous (a thick consistency between solid and liquid).  This slows the uptake of carbohydrates into the blood stream and digestion takes longer, preventing sudden fluctuations in blood sugar. That's why you feel satisfied for longer after eating oats for breakfast. (See my previous two postings on the other health benefits from oats).

Oat pancakes has to be pre-planned as you need to soak half a cup of oats overnight in water.

Oat Pancakes (serves 4)

1/2 cup of soaked rolled oats 
*1/2 cup of Spelt or wholemeal flour
1 cup of plain white flour
2 eggs 
1 Tbsp of oil like Avocado (my favourite) or Grapeseed or if you prefer.. melted butter 
1 Tbsp caster sugar
2 tsp of Baking Powder
1- 11/2 cup of milk (or a mix of yogurt and milk) or **Buttermilk (approx)

You need a couple of bowls to make these pancakes but lightness achieved is
worth the dishes. 

*You can  make pancakes just using white flour, but I just like to add different flours to add more nutritional 'punch' to breakfast.  I did try Buckwheat flour but found even 1/4 cup made the mix a dry unappetising consistency.

** I always look out for specials on buttermilk as it makes excellent pancakes, scones etc (and can be kept in the fridge for longer than it says on the packet). Tip: By using a mix of yoghurt and milk you get a similar taste to buttermilk.

The big secret to these pancakes is the separation of egg yokes from whites and then beating the egg whites until stiff.   Beaten egg whites add lightness to the mix.

I use this method of adding beaten egg whites to any fritter recipe and it
works a treat - try it next time you make corn fritters.

Start by adding to the soaked oats, the two egg yokes, then the flours, sugar and baking powder.  Add enough milk to mix to a pouring consistency batter - a little like lightly beaten cream.  You may need more or less milk... judge by sight.   If you have added too much milk all is not lost, just add some extra flour.   You don't have to worry about over working the mix...until you add the fat (either your chosen oil or melted butter).  Add this next and fold in.   

Finally, add the beaten egg white.  First, take a spoon full of the beaten egg white and fold through the mix.   I usually use the egg white I knock off the egg beater against my hand (not on the bowl) into the mix.  (I add egg whites to any mix - it prepares the mix for the rest of the egg white as a little lightens the mix to allow the remaining egg white to more effectively blend with the mix).

The resulting mix should have a lot of air - make sure you
fold in the egg white with a metal spoon until just mixed to
keep the air.

You can add slices of banana, frozen blue berries, or my favourite, frozen blackcurrants to the mix...
 or just pop a few currants on top of the pancakes.

I learnt about adding currants to the top of the uncooked mix
from my friend Maerushia and decided I would surprise Beau with a smiley
face pancake.

If using caste iron you need to heat it for a while before using so I usually turn the heat on slowly while preparing the pancakes.

Rub the warmed pan with butter paper or give it a light spray with cooking oil.  Always make a small sacrificial pancake first, to see if you have the pan at the right temperature.  You need enough heat to cook them through but not too high that they cook on the outside but remain uncooked on the inside.

Flip the pancakes when bubbles appear and start to burst on the surface of the pancake. If they don't have a firm under-surface when you try to flip them, it means you are flipping too early.

Once cooked, keep them warm in a low oven until ready to eat.

I usually serve pancakes with fruit compote or a bowl of fresh summer fruits, maple syrup and yoghurt.
One of my favourite compotes is pureed cooked gooseberries.

Of course true maple syrup is the best with pancakes, but
if you want to try something produced closer to home,
Pear Syrup produced in Hawkes Bay is a good  replacement.
It's made from 100% pears, no extra sugar added.

The best pancakes are made from using a heavy caste iron pan because the heat is constant making an even crust.  Our landlord and friend Chris has a wonderful selection of cooking pots and I keep one of his large caste iron pans just for pancakes so that I don't get other flavours transferred to the pancake.
In Dunedin I would use my griddle iron... and you griddle fans, you will find it in my September  2012 posting   "A Vintage Morning Tea - Nan's Pikelets".  If you are 'griddleless' try hunting one down  in a second hand shop...  then you will discover perfect pancake production.

Beau loved his smiley face pancake made from currants. He likes his
pancake cut into wedges then a squeeze of syrup.

Every culture has some form of pancake cooked on a stove top.  My work colleague Elizabeth told me about savoury breakfast pancakes they cook in India.  These are made from fermented rice, lentils and oats, and are called Dosa's. Elizabeth says that adding oats gives the dosa more crunch.  I now have the method so I am keen to give them a try.  Will keep you posted. 

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

If only the Three Bears had made Bircher's Muesli

 I wonder... if the 3 Bears had decided on Bircher muesli instead of porridge would they have left their house, bringing about a home invasion and chaos? Bircher muesli originates in Switzerland and is made from soaked porridge oats.  It's an especially delicious breakfast option for summer with fresh fruit.  Best of all, it doesn't have to be cooked at all. The soaking prepares the oats for efficient digestion that's easy on your system. 

"Goldilocks and the Three Bears" Retold and Illustrated by Jan Brett (pub Simon & Schuster)
  I took this book with us from home for grandson Beau. I love the northern European detail in the
 illustrations with lots of woodland plants and animals referenced - a visual feast.
This book was gifted to my son Francis when he was 2 - now 26!

Bircher Muesli

I like to use jumbo or whole grain oats because you get more texture, but if you want a softer or mushier mix then use rolled oats. You need to start the night before you plan to eat the breakfast.  This recipe is for 4-6 people.

This is what the whole oats look like after soaking overnight in milk.

Soak the ingredients together in bowl in the fridge overnight:
  • 2 cups whole jumbo oats or rolled oats
  • 1 3/4 cups milk
  • 1/4 cup apple juice
  • 3 Tbsp lemon juice (lemon juice aids in the fermentation or breaking down the oats) 
In a separate bowl soak a handful of almonds or walnuts overnight.  Like grains, if soaked, the goodness in nuts is made more easily available for your body.  The water will turn brown due to tannins in the skin.  Roughly chop the drained nuts. (Discard the soaking water).
The finished Birchers Muesli creamy with a crunch of the nuts and  the freshness of the apple.

The next morning mix in:
nuts drained and chop to a size you want
Grate 1-2 apples with their skins on
2-3 Tbsp runny honey
1 1/2 cups of plain Greek style yoghurt
You can eat the muesli just as it is but I like to top with cut up seasonal fruit ..  and in the muesli
like to add as much apple as possible in a nod to the original recipe that contained more apple than oats 
I serve this with a mix of chopped up fresh fruit and a slurp of Flax seed oil.   But you can be creative as you like with the fruits you choose or added seeds and nuts.

I was surprised when my daughter Tansy said young Beau had a taste of the Birchers Muesli and really liked it.   Being a 3 year old he is quite conservative with his breakfast usually preferring Weetbix or an egg. It's worth considering offering Birchers muesli to children for breakfast.

Dr Maximilian Bircher-Benner, a physician based in Zurich in the 1900's put Birchers muesli on the map. As is the way with many recipes he didn't come up with the idea from scratch.  While hiking in the Swiss mountains he came to rest at an alpine hut and was offered by a local woman a delicious and reviving dish of grated apple, mixed with soaked oats, lemon juice, condensed milk and almond meal. He realised this was the dish he needed to get his patients eating more fruit.
Dr Bircher-Benner eating he muesli before he evening meal.
It wasn't originally thought of as a breakfast food but as an entree probably
because the apple aided digestion.
Dr Bircher-Benner became increasingly interested in Naturopathy. He saw that food could help cure some of the ailments his wealthy clients suffered from.  He set up what became a world famous sanatorium in Zurich where patients would partake in a diet high in fruit, vegetables, nuts and grains and he encouraged regular exercise. Birchers Muesli was a tasty way of getting them to eat fruit. This regime was seen as controversial by his peers in the 1900's so he was indeed a man ahead of his time.

No need to limit this dish to breakfast - it's a most satisfying snack during the day. It will keep for a couple of days in the fridge so it's worth while making the quantity I have suggested.

Oat-Banana Thickie

This is an ideal "breakfast on the run" using soaked oats.  I make this recipe using whatever fruit I have but I will give you the original Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recipe.

Left: the Banana Oat Thickie as per Hugh's recipe; centre the addition of
frozen mixed berries instead of ice cubes; right addition of about a Tbsp of
freeze dried blackcurrants.

Serves 2
2 Tbsp porridge oats soaked overnight
2 All Good Bananas (my choice)
300 ml Milk (or 150 yoghurt and 150 milk)
1 Tbsp runny honey
2-3 ice blocks

You can use a blender or a stick blender to mix.   Males 2 large glasses.

This is the sort of recipe you can really have any combination of fruits.  The banana gives body but you could reduce to one banana and add other fruit.  It's particularly tasty with a handful of frozen berries.   And try to find All Good Bananas that deliver a fair deal to the growers and have less harmful chemicals than other bananas on offer.

Another addition I make is to add 2 Tbsp of whey protein powder to make this a truly power breakfast.

You can choose to replace milk for fruit juice but keep those soaked oats they make the shake thick and rich and you get all those nutrients from oats.

Frozen fruit or ice cubes make the drink lovely and cool.

One of the important benefits of soaking oats before cooking or eating raw is to ensure the gluten is partially broken down making gluten easier to digest.  

 And how about this for an incentive?

You could avoid your "digestive mechanism breaking down with age or overuse, resulting in allergies, mental illness... chronic indigestion and candida albicans overgrowth." 
Sally Fallon, "Nourishing Traditions".

It's not just oats that need soaking, all grains should be soaked before cooking including corn, quinoa, barley and wheat.
Beau loves this story often read by Poppa Pete

Just as the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears has been handed down through generations,
there is folklore about the value of oats.

It is stated that strength, endurance, energy, beauty and perceptiveness are gained by those who regularly partake of oats (soaked of course).