Thursday, February 20, 2014

Baklava -Mediterranean Nut Pastries

Strictly speaking, the heading should be Middle Eastern and Mediterranean nut pastries for you will find these tasty little filo pastry treats in every cake and coffee shop from North Africa, through all parts of the Arab speaking world,  Israel and around into Greece.  Migrants to our shores, from the old Ottoman empire, have brought  with them all kinds of fabulous food and baklava is one of them - unfortunately we usually get a poor version of it with, heaven forbid, peanuts!  In baklava's homelands they are always made with pistachios, walnuts and almonds - separately, or a mixture of any of the three.

Baklava is the generic term for these sweetmeats that come in all shapes and sizes, with local variations on the basic recipe - I just like making the cigar shaped ones based on a Greek recipe - they are easy to make, store and serve up. Their lemony tang takes the edge off the sweet syrup.  Baklava is actually a Farsi word (the Persian language of Iran and Afghanistan) for 'many leaves' and, if you have eaten them, you will know why.  Nuts and honey, along with a wide variety of vegetables and olive oil are also an integral part of the nutritious and healthy traditional Mediterranean diet.  

1 pack filo pastry, with the sheets cut in half.  Reseal the unused sheets and store in the fridge - they will keep for another couple of weeks and can be used to make cheese and spinach pie, more baklava or some tasty savoury triangles.  Filo pastry is very versatile.
300g mixed whole pistachios, walnuts and almonds that have been toasted in the oven on 180oC for ten minutes.
150 g butter, melted.

For the Syrup
200 ml water
1 stick cinnamon and 5 whole cloves
1 cup honey
Juice of one lemon

1.  Turn oven on to 180oC and toast nuts
2.  Brush non-reactive baking dish 20 x 34cm with melted butter
3.  Pulse nuts in food processor until roughly chopped and size of large breadcrumbs.
NOTE: Don't over-pulse the nuts of they will go oily.
4.  Cut filo pastry in half.

5.  Brush top sheet of pastry with melted butter.  You will brush every subsequent sheet in the same way.
NOTE: Place the filo sheets on a dry bench, otherwise you will make the same mistake I made once and the bottom few sheets of pastry disintegrate before you get to them.
6.  Put one desertspoon of nuts in the middle of the bottom of the sheet - about 5cm from the edge of the sheet.  YOU WILL ONLY BE USING ONE SHEET AT A TIME.
7.  Fold up the bottom edge over the nuts.
8.  Fold the left side over the nuts, and then the right.  Roll up into a cigar shape and start placing them in your greased baking dish - seam side down.
9.  Pour over the remaining melted butter and you should have something that ends up looking like this.  Place in oven on 180oC for 20-25 minutes until puffed up and golden.

Dear reader, you are having the benefit of my previous 'experimental' batches of odd shaped baklavas that usually involved bits of nuts and filo all over the floor.  This is easy once you get the hang of it - I actually find it quite therapeutic - you just need a clear bench top, a clear head and a bit of time.
10.  While the pastries are baking, make the syrup.  Put all the ingredients together in a saucepan and simmer for about 20 minutes.
11.  When the pastries are cooked, strain the syrup over them.  When they are cool, I store them in sealed plastic boxes in the fridge.  They seem to keep until we have eaten them all - which is not very long!

My ten year old granddaughter, Leila, quickly mastering the art of baklava making

Bougatsa - another Greek filo pastry treat that I am mildly addicted to.  These are usually warm when you get them and filled with a lemony flavoured, sweet curd cheese called mizithra, similar to ricotta.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Amaranth - Top Plants

Amaranthus bicolour  variety 'Red Calaloo'
Amaranth, love-lies-bleeding, pigweed, spinach grass

One of the things I really love about writing this blog is how much I learn - I just never know where a chance encounter with a plant, food or people is going to take me.  

The Balinese kitchen garden - amaranth growing in the foreground (also notice the yummy snake beans on the right)

Now take  Amaranth - such a useful plant for the subtropical kitchen garden, incredibly underused and virtually unknown in this part of the world.  I first encountered it in my Balinese kitchen garden where it was a staple crop and used by the locals in anything where 'greens' were needed.  They call it bayam.  I noticed then that it was very prolific and virtually unaffected by pests.

I have had the red/green leaved amaranth ('Red Calaloo') happily growing in my kitchen garden for the past few months surviving all the vagaries of Mullumbimby summer weather and pests.

FACT:  Amaranth is in the CHENOPIDACEAE family - it is not in the cabbage family (BRASSICACEAE) so does get affected by pests in that family e.g. caterpillar of the cabbage white butterfly (click here for more information).

Bunches of amaranth for sale in Sydney (Amaranth biclour 'Red Calaloo')

There is always a trigger that sends me up the garden path and makes me want to write a story about something.  With amaranth it was seeing big, beautiful bunches of it for sale in a shopping centre in Sydney (Randwick) - something I don't remember when I lived there - it was labelled as en choy.  I asked the shop assistant who mostly bought it and he said Greek and Asian people. 

Then I remembered that I had also seen it for sale in Greece where it is used as a substitute spinach and part of their horta (wild greens) repertoire.  The diet of the average Greek has changed, but grasses, weeds and leafy greens have always constituted a regular part of a native Greek's traditional daily meals.  There are many different varieties of amaranth and in Greece the green leaf kind (grown under dry conditions) is known as vliti and the red/green mottled variety (which needs wetter coditions) referred to as papagalos or "parrot" - the kind I have growing in my garden and the same for sale in Sydney.

Local vegetables for sale on the Greek Island of Ios - the black crate at the back is full of the green leaf amaranth (vliti)

WHY SHOULD WE BE PLANTING AMARANTH? Firstly, this is a summer vegetable that survives the wet and heat of summer when just about everything else has turned up its toes.  Secondly, it is extremely nutritious and versatile to cook with - think substitute for spinach. Lastly, as I have mentioned, it is largely unaffected by pests. 

  • Amaranth species are broad-leaved annuals, usually single stemmed, growing up to 2m in a season.
  • They are grown for two main purposes; their protein-rich grain and nutritious leafy greens.
  • Ornamental varieties are also grown for their showy plumes of flowers in shades of pink,scarlet, orange, yellow and purple (Prince of Wales Feather and Joesph's Coat)
  • Propagate readily from seed sown in spring.
    Amaranth growing in my garden (also next to snake beans!)
CULTIVATION.  A very fast-growing, tough, easy-to-grow plant.
  • Amaranth grows best in full sun and does not tolerate shade.
  • There is a variety to suit every location, but Amaranth bicolour is best for the sub-tropics. Check with your local seed supplier to find the best one for your location.
  • A.bicolour is not pH fussy but grows best in a lightly acid soil of 6.
  • It is tolerant of heat and wet conditions, but not water logged soil.
  • Grows best in soils that have been compost enriched and then mulched to prevent drying out.
    This red flowering variety of amaranth is often sold, around our way, as a food plant and while, undoubtedly, you could eat it - it is really best for feeding to the chooks.  It goes to seeds very quickly and produces little in the way of edible leaves.  You can't go past the 'Red Calaloo' for eating.
FOOD.  Both Leaves, young stalk and seeds of this plant can be used.
  • Young stalks can be lightly cooked and are asparagus like in taste.
  • Young leaves are either lightly steamed or stir-fried, and have a mild, spinach-like flavour - the leaves are added to curries in India. 
  • In Greece leaves are used as a substitute for spinach in pies and fritters. With wild greens of any kind (horta) the traditional way to prepare them is to blanch the leaves in boiling water then toss them in olive oil, lemon juice, a little garlic and salt and pepper.
  • I have no experience of cooking the seeds - I just know that chickens love the seeds heads and they always know what's good for them!  They are one of the most protein rich seeds so maybe that has something to do with it.
  • The plants contain an unusual chemical called squalene (also found in shark's liver), which is a powerful antioxidant and has been used to boost the immune system and to treat hypertension, skin problems and metabolic disorders.
  • Plants contain betalain, which give the plant much of its red colouring.  These powerful antioxidant compounds are fairly unusual in the plant world, and have significant nutritional benefits.
  • The seeds are very high in proteins:15-18% and low in gluten They are also a good source of calcium, iron, phosphates and vitamin A.*
RECIPE:  Stir-fried amaranth with prawns and calamari. 5 minutes cooking time (30 minutes preparation!)

A bowl of vegetables from my kitchen garden - including amaranth

I always look forward to coming home after being away for a while and I am always hoping that I have something in the untended garden to either make a salad or a stir-fry with.  I was not disappointed - lots of lovely amaranth, snake beans, kale, capsicum and chillies.  Add some Thai basil, lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves and dinner was on it's way. Luckily my flight comes into Ballina, that has one of the few remaining seafood markets - and you just never know what the fishermen have pulled up.  A quick detour on my way home brought up some very cheap baby squid and green prawns - I was just not that happy that cleaning them was the first job I had to do when I walked in the door!

All cleaned - baby squid and green prawns

1 bunch amaranth, roughly chopped.

500g mixed fresh seafood - you could use firm, white fish. (I sliced the squid into circles/slices)

1 small brown onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed,
1 long red chilli, finely sliced (adjust to taste for hotness)
1 bunch snake beans, chopped into small pieces
1 stem lemongrass, white part only, finely sliced
small bunch kale, finely chopped
handful Thai basil leaves
4 kaffir lime leaves
1 tbs peanut oil
2 tbs fish sauce
2 tbs light soy sauce
1 tbs shaved palm sugar
1 tsp ground white pepper
juice of half a lime

1.  Heat oil in wok and add onion.  Stir for 1 minute.
2.  Make sure wok is very hot then add seafood and toss around for another minute.
3.  Add chopped vegetables, garlic, chilli, kaffir lime leaves and chopped lemon grass.  Toss for 1 minute.
4.  Add everything else , except lime juice, and toss for another minute.  Squeeze over lime juice just before serving.  Serve with rice.  Enough for 4
NOTE:  Stir-fry's are very flexible dishes - which is probably why thy are so popular.  You could swap the seafood for chicken and use any greens/beans/broccoli/cauliflower/snow peas/capsicum/carrots/bean sprouts/cashew nuts etc.

The name Amaranth comes from the Greek amaranthos (αμάρανθος) the "un-withering," or “fadeless” (flower). Associated since the most ancient times with the goddess of the hunt, Artemis (Diana) - I knew there had to be a reason why I was going up this particular garden path!

*Discovering Vegetables, Herbs, Spices, Dr. Susanna Lyle, CSIRO Publishing.2009