Thursday, 18 December 2014

Baked Filled Courgettes in Tomato Sauce

As much as I enjoy going out or staying in with friends, especially at this time of year - there's so much socializing - every now and then I do like to spend time alone and have my quiet moment. I've been out and about every night this week and it's so good to finally have an evening all to myself.

Not that I am over with all the Christmas spirit... Not at all. I absolutely love Christmas and I look forward to having some friends over for Christmas lunch. I just finished planning my menu the other day and I cannot wait for some more festive fun!

Today after work I cooked this baked filled courgettes in tomato sauce. The courgette is filled with sausage meat and I use Italian sausage which I prefer because it comes pre-flavoured with fragrant fennel seeds. If you're using plain sausage meat, just sprinkle a teaspoon or so of fennel seeds. The filling also includes the courgette pulp that's been cooked with garlic, egg, breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese and some flat leaf Italian parsley.

The spicy tomato sauce that surrounds the baked courgettes is easy to make and speedy too. You'll see...
As much as I am enjoying this dish on my own, actually this will make a great side dish when you're having people around... But I am being completely selfish right now and all I need with this, is a hunk of bread to dip the tomato sauce and a glass or two of fermented grape juice. Have a great one my friends.


Baked Filled Courgettes in Tomato Sauce

6 large courgettes
2 tbsp olive oil, regular kind
1 clove of garlic, finely minced or grated
300 gr Italian sausage, casings removed
50 gr breadcrumbs
1 egg
30 gr grated Parmesan, plus more
Flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For the tomato sauce
2 tbsp olive oil, the regular kind
1 small onion, finely chopped
Red pepper flakes, to taste
400 gr tinned chopped tomatoes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For the tomato sauce, heat the oil in a pan and sauté the onion and red pepper flakes over medium heat until softened. Add the tomatoes, and swirl the can with a little bit of water and add the water to the pan. Season with salt and pepper and bring to a boil and then simmer for fifteen minutes or so, stirring occasionally.

In the meantime, preheat your oven to 200 C. Cut the courgettes in half lengthways and scoop out the pulp and keep in to one side. In a frying pan, heat the olive oil and add the garlic and fry over medium heat for a couple of minutes just to infuse the oil with the garlic without letting the garlic burn. Then add the courgette pulp and cook for few minutes until cooked. Leave to cool.

In a big bowl, add the sausage meat with the breadcrumbs, egg, Parmesan, parsley and cooled courgette pulp. Mix to combine. I find this easier to do with hands. Clean, of course. Don't forget to season with salt and pepper. Fill the courgette shells with the mixture. 

Pour the tomato sauce into an ovenproof baking dish. Place the filled courgettes on top and sprinkle with a bit more Parmesan. Cover the whole dish with foil and bake for half an hour. Then remove the foil and bake for further 10 minutes to brown and the courgettes are cooked through.
Leave to stand for a few minutes before serving and drizzle with a bit more olive oil, this time the good kind (extra-virgin) and sprinkle with more finely chopped parsley... And you know what to do next... :)

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Chocolate Fruit Cake

Greetings friends!

How is everyone doing? I hope all is well and are in great festive spirit.
I apologise for the lack of posts and I have missed all of you. It's been a busy past few weeks and not that I haven't been cooking or eating - if you are a follower of my Instagram account (@Michael_Toa), you know that it's not the case. After spending hours in the kitchen during the day, I come home and still cook for myself most days, but nothing too elaborate... I mean something simple (and utterly delicious) like spaghetti with marmite.

I can't believe it's been over four months now since my move to the Cayman Islands to start my new job as a pastry cook. I have very much enjoyed this new role and I am constantly learning new recipes, techniques - and pushing myself and giving the best of my ability.

I work in the bakery section of the pastry department, baking many different types of fresh breads, rolls and loaves everyday. Funny thing that I once terrified of baking bread at home, and now it becomes a job that I love so very much. 

There had been days when it's extremely busy and things didn't go as planned, but I learn from the experience. And even when it's crazy busy I try to make it fun... I mean baking is fun and stress is just an unnecessary ingredient.

The island life is getting better I suppose. The weather is a bit cooler right now which I like. I made many new friends and found a group of people who are lovely to feed, so I'm always happy to have them around. 

I am spending my day off from baking, doing some home baking. I am finally getting into the Christmas spirit and as I'm typing this, I have Christmas carols playing and in the oven, my fruit cake is doing its thing and the house is smelling incredible. I use the same recipe every year from Nigella. I'll be sure to put the link to the recipe later. The fruit cake is unbelievably moist and I absolutely love it. In it you'll find raisins, currants, prunes, coffee liquor, orange peel, brown sugar, mixed spice and cocoa... All the good stuff.  The only alteration I made to the recipe is, instead of using honey, I used marmalade with ginger which gives another layer of sweetness, but also warmth to the fruit cake. 

The method to making the cake is also very easy, another reason to love. You don't need to steep the dried fruits days in advance - just put everything in a big pan and the heat along with the liquids will rehydrate the dried fruits for you.

It's still quite early in the morning, but I feel like after my coffee, I need some mulled wine too... :) I mean it is the season after all, right? 

Happy holidays my friends!

Chocolate Fruit Cake
Recipe by Nigella Lawson
Find the list of ingredients and instructions, here.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014


I love travelling and I often use food as reminders of the good times I had at certain destinations. For example, when I make coconut ice cream, I immediately think of the fun times I had in Barcelona. It's been years since I was last in Barcelona but I will always remember that hot day after touring the Picasso Museum, then going to an ice cream parlour nearby and treating myself to some amazing coconut ice cream. So good!

But as often I cook food from places I've never been, but very much inspired with, and wishing one day I'll be able to visit them. A couple of weeks ago, I was looking through a travel magazine and came across an article about bar scenes in the Netherlands. Though I have actually been to the Netherlands, at the time I was really young and not age appropriate to check out the bar scene. 

In the Netherlands, one of the most popular bar snacks to accompany a glass (or a round) of beer(s) or wine is bitterballen. So, in the spirit of recreating that bar experience at home, that's what I make for dinner tonight.

If you don't know, bitterballen are deep-fried breadcrumb-covered meatballs with creamy ragout fillings. It's crunchy on the outside and soft, meaty gooey in the inside. Bitterballen are traditionally made with beef but use whatever you want, chicken, turkey, veal or even mushrooms if you want to make it vegetarian friendly. This time I opted for minced pork.

These little mouthfuls are so easy to make and if you're making a big batch for larger group, you can make make them in advance and fry for a couple of minutes before serving. Now, this is what you have to do: heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan and fry 200 gr of minced pork with half very finely chopped onion, until the mince is brown all over and the onion is soft. Season with salt and black pepper.

Ok, whenever I am cooking with pork, I have this irresistible impulse to add fennel seeds... Perhaps it's the Italian in me. And this time, however untraditional, is no exception. So, if you wish you can add that too. 

Put the fried pork and onion (and fennel) in a bowl and it's time to add more seasoning. First on the list, nutmeg which adds a warm, sweet spicy flavour but use it sparingly. A little bit goes a long way. Then add finely chopped fresh parsley; and the zest and juice of half a lemon. Give everything a stir, taste and adjust the seasoning to your liking. Set aside.

Melt 25 gr of butter in a saucepan and add a heaped tablespoon of plain flour. Stir the flour around and cook for 2-3 minutes to get rid of the raw flour taste. Gradually stir in milk, just enough to form a thick sauce. This sauce is going to be the glue to bind the pork.

Add the sauce to the meat mixture and mix until well combined. Set aside to cool. I find it is easier to shape the meatballs when the mixture is fridge cold.

One cool, using a measuring spoon, divide and shape the mixture into small balls. About a tablespoon for each ball is perfect. I got 16 meatballs from this mixture. 

Beat one egg in a bowl and some breadcrumbs, I use panko for the extra crunch onto a plate. 

Heat some vegetable oil in a pan. You'll know the oil is hot enough when a breadcrumb sizzles and turns brown when dropped into it. 

Dip the balls into the egg and then coat in the panko. Fry the balls for 3-4 minutes or until golden brown. Remove the balls on kitchen paper to absorb the excess oil. Fry in batches and don't crowd the pan.

Serve with pickled onions and mustard. English is my preference but whatever you have on hand. Also because this boy loves him some bread, few slices of delicious dark pumpernickel bread. An of course, red wine. 

Have a great one my friends... :)

My question of the day, what is your favourite snack to have with a drink?

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Orzo Salad with Roasted Pumpkin and Rocket Pesto

The autumn season brings favourites like root vegetables, dark green vegetables and delicious fruits to make crumbles with such as apples and pears. But let's be honest, pumpkins really hog the limelight in this season, especially in October. Though saying that, technically it is not autumn here on the island, but I am celebrating in spirit :)

A couple of weeks ago, I went to an Oktoberfest party and although I had a great time sampling the delicious beers (had my first pumpkin ale and I loved it), I was so excited that they served food too (much needed I think especially when drinking a fair amount). One of the highlights was a pasta salad with roasted pumpkins which was just so good that it inspired me to make it at home... And this is what I came up with.

The pasta I use here is called orzo. It is a bit like rice shaped pasta, although orzo actually means barley in Italian. Because of the little size, they don't take long to cook and actually the rest of the components for the salad is also very quick to make.

I cut the pumpkin into little cubes for quick roasting and also to kinda match the orzo. The pumpkin is seasoned with dried thyme, salt, black pepper and olive oil. 

Dressing the salad is rocket/arugula pesto which I just adore. The peppery-ness from the rocket leaves with the salty and nutty Parmesan cheese, and also the sharpness of lemon work beautifully with the sweetness from the pumpkin. Making the pesto itself is hardly any work... Everything is done in a food processor. Easy-peasy!

For a little crunch and texture, I sprinkled some sunflower seeds. This is a very easy and comforting autumnal salad and I hope you'll give this a go. 

Last but not least, I want to say thank you to everyone for the birthday messages, emails and tweets. They're very much appreciated. I was working on the actual birthday but I did have a nice time with friends afterwards. I made a new friend not a long time ago (who is also new to the island) and coincidentally we share the same birthday, so we went out for dinner with few more friends and the evening ended at a salsa bar where I discovered that perhaps a robot could salsa dance better that I did. 

The following day I hosted a small dinner with more friends and I served this orzo pasta salad among other things, and my friends loved it. I made a bigger amount than the recipe below and if you're fortunate enough to have leftovers, I suggest you have this for breakfast with fried egg and a good dollop of Nigella's spicy and addictive jumbo chilli sauce which help absorb last night's excesses.

Have a great one my friends!

Orzo Salad with Roasted Pumpkin and Rocket Pesto

500 gr orzo pasta
350 gr pumpkin, cut into little cubes
2 tsp dried thyme
Olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Sunflower seeds
Fresh rocket leaves

For the pesto:
100 gr fresh rocket leaves
50 gr pine nuts
1 clove of garlic, peeled
Juice of 1 lemon
100 gr freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

On a sheet pan, spread the diced pumpkin on a single layer and sprinkle with dried thyme, salt, black pepper and olive oil. Give them a toss and bake in a preheated 180 C oven for 15 minutes or until they're fully cooked but still holding their shape.

In the meantime, cook the orzo in a big pot of salted boiling water according to the packet's instruction. Once cooked, drain and give the orzo a quick rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process and also to get rid some of the extra starch which may cause the orzo to become sticky.  Transfer to a large bowl. 

To make the pesto sauce, in a food processor, add all the ingredients except for the EVOO. Blitz to mix for a few seconds and with the machine running, gradually stream the olive oil to the desired consistency. Season the pesto with salt and black pepper.

Toss the cooked orzo pasta with the pesto until each grain is well-coated. Taste to check if you need to add a bit more lemon juice, or perhaps a little more grated Parmesan or salt and pepper.  

Add the roasted pumpkin, sprinkle the sunflower seeds and mix again. If you're making this in advance, I would suggest adding the fresh rocket leaves just before serving to keep them fresh.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Lemon and Crystallised Ginger Brioche

There are many ways to greet people, obviously... There's the handshake; a hug; a hug and a kiss (or two or three) on the cheek; the Japanese bowing; the Thai wai, etc... Which are all fine by me. But then there's also the fist bump which makes things awkward.

I am not the kind of person who'd initiate a fist bump just so you know; and whenever someone offers the salutation, it always takes me a second to think what to do with it, how to reciprocate the hand gesture.

The appropriate way is of course to return the favour and you 'pound' it. I think that's the right terminology... To pound... I don't know. As you can tell, I am cool like that... Not! 

Anyway, recently at the end of a work-shift, a colleague offered a fist bump and after a couple of seconds of what feels like a very slow thought process, I decided to wrap my hand around his fist and I shook it. Yes, I shook it.

.....*insert favourite swearword! 

Just thinking about that moment gives me the creep. Oh Michael, WHY?!

My question of the day, what's your opinion on fist bump? Have you experienced similar awkward situation? No? Just me? Ok then...

Anyway...moving on... Let's focus on these delicious and fragrant lemon and crystallised ginger brioche buns. Brioche is one of my favourite breads. It's soft and buttery, with a rich flavour and a light texture. Thanks to the high content of butter and also the eggs which make this bread utterly sublime. 

There are several methods to making brioche dough which sometimes take a day or two. Because of the high butter content, often when the dough is made, you have to refrigerate it for several hours or overnight so that it's easier to handle and shape. My version here, I suppose is an express brioche and great for us with little patience. It is still buttery, and the dough will be soft but not impossible to handle straightaway. 

As with any enriched dough, brioche has a lot going that yeast does not like, so making a sponge starter helps achieve a light brioche. And it's nothing complicated at all. Believe me. 

The flavour idea comes from an evening of sipping lemon and ginger tea... And I just thought wouldn't it be great to be able to chew on this, and so... yeah, greed also plays a big part in the making of these brioche buns. 

I hope you give this a go... Have a great weekend! x
Lemon and Crystallised Ginger Brioche
Makes 20 brioche buns

For the sponge
40 gr strong white flour
5 gr instant yeast
65 ml lukewarm milk

300 gr strong white flour
50 gr caster sugar
5 gr salt
1 lemon, zest and juice
3 eggs + 1 for egg wash
90 gr soft butter, unsalted
50 gr crystallised ginger

Rock salt, for topping

Make the sponge by combining all the sponge ingredients in a bowl and giving them a good mix with your hand. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside for few minutes to allow the yeast to grow and the mixture will become foamy and bubbly.

In a mixing bowl, add all the sponge and the rest of the ingredients, except the butter and the crystallised ginger. If you have a freestanding mixer that comes with a dough hook, do use it. At first the mixture will look runny and sticking to the sides of the bowl, but not to worry, just keep the mixer going at medium-high speed for few minutes and it will come together eventually. 

Once the dough comes together nicely, take a little piece of the dough and check if it has passed the windowpane test.  This is to tell if you've sufficiently kneaded your dough.  To do this, hold the little piece of dough and gently stretch the dough into thin translucent membrane; and if you hold it against the light, you should be able to see the light coming through (the windowpane). If you can do this without tearing the dough, that means the gluten is well-developed and you can proceed to the next step. 

Add the butter in three additions and once the butter is fully incorporated into the dough, throw in the chopped crystallised ginger and mix again for a couple of minutes. Take the dough out and shape it into a ball. Place on a lightly greased sheet pan or a big bowl and cover with cling film. Let the dough rest and proof until it doubles in size. This may take from 45 minutes to an hour depending on the temperature of the room.

Divide the dough into 20 equal size... You can eyeball it, or if you want to be precise, each ball is about 36 grams. Shape the dough into little balls and place into a lightly greased moulds. But you can shape it anyway you want... in a loaf pan, or you can circle them around in a baking tin and make a 'tear-and-share' kind of shape. Let the dough proof again for the second time for about hour or so. In the meantime, preheat your oven to 170 C. 

Before baking, brush or spray generously with egg wash which will make the brioche glisten later, and top with a little sprinkling of rock sea salt.  Bake in the oven for 10 minutes or until the top is golden. Let cool a little and you know what to do next...