Recipe from Balsam Mediterranean Kitchen. Bitter Greens

September is a glorious month to visit Sicily. It’s still warm with a distinct lack of crowds. Whereas in August it is literally too hot to lift a finger, September brings sunny days and temperatures in the mid to late 20s (Celsius), a fresher feel which necessitates throwing something over your shoulders later in the day. It’s considered normal to start wearing le scarpe chiuse again (the literal translation is closed shoes, shoes that do not expose one’s toes such as sandals or flip flops).

September brings an exciting sense of plentiful abundance and with that in mind, later in the month is dedicated to la vendemmia. The wine harvest is an important event amongst the vineyards of Mount Etna considering the ever-growing popularity and justifiable success of Etna wines. I’m reminded that l’autumno is on its way from my trips to il fruttivendolo on the corner of my street. Now I see mounds of cruciferous or brassica vegetables such as broccoli, chard, cabbage and cauliflower. Think ‘green’ with courgettes, cucumber, chicory, lettuce leaves, peas, celery, green beans, fennel, leeks and spinach. My record of seasonal vegetables from the calendar www.ilcalendariodellorto.com reminds me that both sweet and savoury tastes are catered for this month with the arrival of radishes, pumpkin, garlic, onion, peppers, aubergine, tomatoes, figs and pomegranate.

And naturally new seasonal vegetables mean new recipes! I love how Italian households revere their greens as a main dish and never as a mere side dish. Chard le biete, spinach gli spinaci, broccoli i broccoli, turnip tops le cime di rape; we’re spoilt for choice in the variety of ways of serving them. Not forgetting also that greens are full of nutrients, minerals and fibre. They’re filling and low in calories so, what’s not to like?! But how should one cook their greens? I find it difficult to get excited about a plate of steamed greens but then if I throw those steamed greens into a pan and saltare in padella with olive oil, garlic and chilli which marries so well with their bitter, pungent flavour well, that gets my attention.

The classic way of serving greens (after thoroughly cleaning them and boiling them in salted water) is to sauté them in olive oil, garlic and chilli. Or once cooked, add olive oil, salt and lemon. Or add pine nuts and sultanas. Or mix them with a ‘short’ pasta typically orecchiete, to create the famous dish from Puglia orechiette con le cime di rapa. Or mix them with tomato sauce and add shavings of parmesan and serve with some warm crusty bread to mop up the juices and maybe a fried egg for a quick and easy supper. Or add to ricotta in pastry to make a savoury tart. Or add to minestrone. Or add to an omelette. Or as a side dish to sausages or chicken. Or as a pizza topping. As I was saying…..spoilt for choice!

Flatbreads with Sicilian-inspired greens and ricotta filling (adapted from recipes @lazycatkitchen and @demuths)

Makes 4 large flatbreads

For the flatbreads

250 grams of plain flour or all-purpose white flour

¼ – ½ teaspoon of fine salt

150 millilitres of hot water (approximately)

30 millilitres of olive oil

Sunflower oil for frying

 

For the filling

2 tablespoons of olive oil

2 thin slices of fresh chilli (+/- subject to your taste)

½ small onion, finely chopped

250 grams of pre-cooked and drained greens (I used turnip tops le cime di rapa but spinach or similar will do)

100 grams of ricotta

100 grams of grated parmesan (it doesn’t matter if you use more or less)

Salt & pepper

 

Method

Dough

*Put the flour in a mixing bowl and add the salt

*Make a well in the centre and add the olive oil

*Gradually add the water and mix well with a spoon (the water is hot!)

*Bring the dough together with your hands and start to knead. Add a little water if the dough is not holding together and knead until you have dough that is smooth and pliable (approximately 5-10 minutes)

*Cover with a clean, damp tea towel and leave to rest for 30 minutes

Filling

*Heat the olive oil in a frying pan and soften the onion and chilli for approximately 5-10 minutes

*Remove from the heat and combine with the greens

*Add the ricotta and parmesan

*Add a pinch of pepper first and then salt (if required)

Flatbreads

*Divide the dough into 4 balls

*Roll out a ball of dough onto a lightly floured work surface into a circle, as thinly as possible

*On one half of the circle spread the vegetable filling flat across the dough

*Fold the empty half of the circle over the dough so that it meets the other side of the circle to form a semi-circle and press the edges firmly to seal

*Heat 2 teaspoons of sunflower oil in a frying pan on a medium heat

*Lightly brush one side of the flatbread with olive oil

*Turn the flatbread into your pan oil side down, and cook until the distinctive brown marks appear

*Brush the top with oil then turn over and cook the other side

*Remove from the heat, slice in half and serve immediately (you can keep the cooked bread warm under a tea towel or in a warm oven whilst preparing the remainder)

*Repeat with the rest of the dough and filling

 

 

 

My Vegan Journey – Demuths Vegan Diploma

Around this time two years ago, I dedicated two weeks to attend Demuths first Vegan Diploma course. I wasn’t vegan (and I’m still not) but an amazing trip earlier in the year to Hong Kong, Malaysia, Bali and the Philippines with the sole purpose of doing yoga and healthy eating (and visit my brother in HK) had led to my discovery of vegan food. And it was a revelation! I came back from the trip quite a few pounds lighter, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and full of energy. I also knew that I didn’t want my vegan ‘journey’ to stop there.

A residential Vegan Diploma course at Demuths ticked the boxes. A renowned vegetarian cookery school in Bath run by an award winning vegetarian chef and her experienced team. I love the West Country and it doesn’t get much better than being based in Bath for two weeks. Dog sitter? Tick. I was lucky that my sister-in-law’s parents live in Bristol and agreed to look after my beloved Westie, Dizzy Rascal. I think they also secretly hoped to share some vegan deliciousness at the end of each day!

I was apprehensive and excited but mainly curious at the start of the course. I didn’t know what to expect. Two weeks seemed quite a long time to learn to cook just plant based ingredients? I’m half Italian and a confident home cook, given I’ve been cooking from an early age but in no way, could I call myself a chef. Would I be out of my depth, I asked myself?

On arrival, we were all invited to sit in the cosy seating area above the kitchen and started to introduce ourselves over coffee, tea and delicious homemade vegan biscuits! A good start. After a warm welcome from Rachel, it was time to get our aprons on and wash our hands ready for the first demonstration! There were about eight of us on the course which felt like the right size to maintain a feeling of intimacy within the class. As students with varying degrees of experience and backgrounds, I think we all enjoyed meeting each other as well as swapping ideas and recommendations. Interestingly, some of the students had already attended a few Demuths courses and I now understand why!

Classes were a mix of demonstration and hands on preparation and cookery. Dishes were international and based on seasonal ingredients and availability. The course was broken up into four modules over two weeks. Module One ‘Pasta, Sauces, Soups and Stocks’, Module Two ‘Grains, Legumes and Vegetables’, Module Three ‘Bread’ and Module Four ‘Pastry and Desserts.’ As well as learning lots of recipes, we were also taught preparation methods, cooking techniques and safe, hygienic practices. Pretty much what you would expect in any professional kitchen.

The tutors were friendly and fabulous, so knowledgeable and patient! What I really appreciated were the extra tit-bits of info that they were willing to share about products and recipes. And we had A LOT of questions! Although we worked to a strict timetable each day, the atmosphere was relaxed and fun. Every lunchtime we sat down to eat the delicious food we had prepared and the same again in the afternoon. We were generously provided with leftover boxes to take food away with us at the end of each day.

I learnt so much from the course about ingredients, spices, techniques and flavours. There were so many ingredients I had not heard of before! Even learning to taste every time I added an ingredient to a dish, may sound like an obvious technique yet it taught me the importance of recognising flavour combinations, particularly with ingredients I had not used before. I went through so many teaspoons! The two weeks went by in a flash. Here are some of the highlights (there were a lot, these are just a few!)

  • The wonder of aguafaba. Chickpea water instead of egg whites to make meringues? Yup.
  • Making vegan cheese from rejuvelac and soaked cashew nuts. Never thought it possible. And so delicious!
  • I discovered tempeh. A sexier, meatier soy product than tofu.
  • Experienced tutors. These ladies really know their stuff. I was in awe.
  • Flax batter instead of egg? For making desserts and cakes.
  • A makeshift smoker made from a wok and a cake rack to smoke tofu. Genius!
  • Sauerkraut. I never thought fermented cabbage could taste so good!

Demuths Vegan Diploma course was thorough, professional, varied, interesting and fun. I loved the creativity of vegan cooking and as its plant based, I felt it was also doing me good.

I looked at the photos we took on the last day of the course and saw myself grinning like a Cheshire cat holding a plate of vegan deliciousness that I had made. Yes, the course is a commitment in terms of time however, it was a life changing experience that came at the right moment for me and I loved every minute of it. I would have moved in if I could!!!

I realised at that point that I had started a journey and shifted my diet to being plant-based. On returning to London alongside my corporate career, I volunteered at a vegan community kitchen and a vegan café. Two years on I have left the corporate world in London to dedicate myself to a MSc in Nutrition, Physical Activity and Public Health at Bristol University with specific research interest on the Mediterranean Diet. I’ve qualified as a yoga teacher and taken over the villa that my father built to create The View, Sicily. A holiday home that offers yoga and vegan and vegetarian cookery classes based on the Mediterranean Diet i.e. local, seasonal produce. Fruit, wine and olive oil are produced on site. Now I’m plant- and solar-powered!

The Demuths Vegan Diploma is a 2-week course that runs throughout the year http://demuths.co.uk/rachels-blog/article/Demuths_Vegan_Diploma_My_Vegan_Journey

More information can be found here.