28 December 2008

Rich Roll Cookies

Holiday sugar cookies seem like the simplest thing to make, yet so many versions are disappointing- too thin, too crispy, too fat, overly sugary, not enough flavor. My mom makes the best christmas cookies, the kind you start dreaming about the day after Thanksgiving. Every December she would pull down her copy of the Joy of Cooking, "Mrs Rombaeur," she called it, and open it to the butter and flour stained page marked by a red silk ribbon. Each year we'd make the "rich roll sugar cookies," stamping out stars and trees and snowmen, and frosting them with royal icing.

After I left home I spent many years making Christmas cookies that never matched those rich roll cookies. Sugar cookies are so simple that I always figured any old recipe would do, but after years of experience, I realized that this was not the case. Even my more modern edition of The Joy of Cooking didn't have the rich roll recipe I wanted. So I called my mom, and had her dictate the recipe from her chartreuse-cloth bound, butter stained, ribbon marked "Mrs. Rombauer." The cookies are exactly what I remembered, and exactly what I wanted. The ingredients are simple, but the key is in their proportions, that is, plenty of butter makes everything better. I made one batch, and then another, and another, decorating them for parties and wrapping them for gifts. I realize the time for Christmas cookies is coming to an end, but with recipe as timeless as this, it's good to have around any time of year.

Rich Roll Sugar Cookies

1 cup (2 sticks) butter
2/3 cup sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour

1. Cream the butter until smooth. Cream in the sugar until the mixture is light and fluffy. Beat in the egg and vanilla extract until combined. Add the flour with the salt in two additions, stirring until it forms a smooth dough. Divide the dough into two disks, wrap in plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for at least 15 minutes, and up to overnight.
2. Preheat oven to 350F. If your dough has been refrigerated for over an hour, you will want to let it soften a bit at room temperature before rolling, about 15 minutes. Dust your work surface and rolling pin with flour and roll out cookie dough to 1/4 inch thickness. Do not roll too thin. Cut out shapes with a cookie cutter and transfer them to a lined/greased baking sheet, re-rolling until all the dough is used up.
3. I usually pop my cookie sheets in the fridge for about 10 minutes to chill before baking, while I roll out the second disk of dough, but you don't have to do this.
4. Bake cookies in the center of the oven for 8-12 minutes, depending on the size of your cookies, until just barely golden on the edges. Do not let brown. Transfer to a rack to cool completely before decorating with royal icing.

Royal Icing

3 egg whites
4 cups (1 box, 1 lb) powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or lemon juice
food coloring of choice

Beat together egg whites, flavoring, and sugar until smooth. Divide into batches and add food coloring as desired. Icing can be stored in the fridge with plastic wrap pressed directly against the surface.

20 December 2008

Scenes from the Holiday Party Kitchen

Assorted Caviar, Creme Fraiche, Blini and Rye

Pulled Beef Barbeque, Homemade Brioche

Spinach Stuffed Artichoke Bottoms, before being topped with buttered breadcrumbs and baked (recipe in the comments section)

Persian-style jeweled rice

Red Velvet Cake Truffles dusted with edible gold

also on the menu but not pictured:
Devils on Horseback
Curry Deviled Eggs
Homemade Mango Salsa and Homemade Tortilla Chips
Endives filled with Pears and Nuts
Crudites with Pomegranate-Sour Cream Dip
Beet, Goat Cheese, and Olive Tart
Apple, Muenster, and Pecan Butter Squares
Vegetarian Sausage Biscuits
Lamb Meatballs in Prune-Apricot Sauce
Homemade Christmas Cookies
Homemade Eggnog (Craig Claiborne's recipe)
Mulled Wine

Please excuse the lack of posting, obviously I've been busy. Hope you're all having a lovely holiday season!

13 December 2008

Chess Pie

I don't know if I should even talk about this recipe . It could be dangerous. It could foment great family drama. You see, my mother and I have a disagreement about chess pie: she swears by her recipe, I prefer mine. She considers my recipe heretical. It's one of those disagreements that leads to awkward silences and uncomfortable family dinners. But chess pie is also too good not to have, so I'm taking the risk to share the recipe with you all.

First, let me back track for those of you who raised a curious eyebrow when I said "chess pie." A classic of the American South (my mom's from Tennessee), chess pie is a simple custard pie made from dairy (cream or buttermilk), butter, sugar, eggs, and cornmeal. Variations abound, from lemon to chocolate chess pie, but it remains homely, marked by a crackly dark top and a soft pudding-like interior. The first time I had the French tarte au flan, it reminded me of the European version of chess pie.

Of course, that range of recipes for chess pie are where we get into family trouble. My mother swears by "Cousin Bessie's Chess pie," one of those stained yellow index card recipes scribbled in turn of the century handwriting. I don't know who Cousin Bessie was, but she sure knew her way around pie. Her recipe calls for cream, a stick of melted butter, and a heart-attack inducing amount of sugar. To my mom's credit, Cousin Bessie's pie is goooood, but it is also rich. One year at Christmas I made the mistake of helping myself to a second sliver of pie and then proceeded to lay moaning on the coach for the rest of the evening.

My recipe for chess pie calls for buttermilk, slightly less butter, and lemon. While my mother begrudgingly accepts the buttermilk, it's the lemon she can't get over. Absolutely not, she says definitively, Personally, I think the buttermilk and lemon add a tang to the pie, something to keep it from being diabetically sweet and rich. Ironically, when I pulled out Cousin Bessie's recipe, there on the ingredient list is "lemon juice." When I confronted my mother about this seeming contradiction, she simpy said, "oh, we just never added that." Which I think says a lot about taste memory, what we think is authentic, and how we re-remember things.

Chess pie is a Christmas standard, but whose standard recipe will be on the table this year is yet to be fought out. I'll give you both recipes and maybe you can start a holiday pie feud of your own.

Chess Pie
Don't be skeptical of the cornmeal- it adds a distinctive amount of soft texture that is the hallmark of chess pie. If you don't believe in lemon, try substituting vanilla extract.

1 unbaked pie crust
1 cup buttermilk
3 eggs
4 tbl melted butter
2 tbl cornmeal
1 1/2 cups sugar
juice of half a lemon and about a teaspoon of its zest

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Beat the eggs and sugar together until very thick. Add the buttermilk, butter, cornmeal, and lemon. Pour into ie crust. Bake until top is dark brown and jiggles slightly in the center but the edges are set, 40-50 minutes.

As soon as I finagle Cousin Bessie's Chess Pie recipe out of my mom, I'll post it here.

08 December 2008

Pulled Beef Barbeque

Is it wrong that when I got yet another holiday party invitation in the mail I wanted to book the next flight to Cancun and emerge, tanned and rested, in January? Don't get me wrong, I put up lights on the house yesterday, love the smell of pine, and I haven't even gotten sick of Christmas carols in the stores yet. But sometimes the holidays can be a little overwhelming - this party, that open house, presents to buy, cold winds to brave, family jostling and busy airports and train stations.

But if I'm a bit of a grinch about everyone else's holiday party, it's only because I'm so excited about mine. A friend and I are co-hosting a holiday open house, and I'm determined to make everything, from blini to eggnog to triffle, from scratch. Problem is, it's still two weeks away, and we already have over sixty RSVP's. Maybe you're understanding why I'm a grinch now? Luckily, I have multiple spreadsheets and calendar reminders to keep me in line.

Which is why I'm telling you about pulled beef barbeque today. No, not Christmas cookies (recipes coming), or roasts, nor those blini (which will be made the week ahead and frozen), but that most summer-sounding of recipes: beef barbeque. And here's why: it's super easy, this stuff is delicious, and it can feed a huge crowd. And as much as I love good old Carolina-style vinegar 'cue, I have enough Muslim and Jewish friends to make me shy away from serving too much pork.

For our party I've made bite-sized brioche rolls, and I'll be toasting them for slider-style beef barbeque sandwiches. Cute and dainty but rich and comforting as well. The barbeque is also great spooned over tortillas and topped with sour cream or made into big sloppy joe style sandwiches. It's only one of our elaborate menu items I hope to share with you as I work towards the party. And yes, I will be going to those other holiday parties and events, if only in the hopes that everyone will do the same for mine.

Pulled Beef Barbeque
Adapted from Simply Recipes. Makes 12 large sandwiches, can easily be doubled or trippled.

One 3-pound bone-in chuck roast, rinsed and dried
2 medium onions, chopped
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 18-ounce bottle of your favorite barbecue sauce (or 2 1/4 cups of your favorite homemade barbecue sauce)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Place all the ingredients in a large deep pot and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover the pot, and slow cook for 3 hours, or until meat is completely tender.
2. Use tongs to remove meat to a cutting board. Meanwhile, use a knife and fork to pull the meat away from the bones and pull apart into small pieces.
3. Increase the heat on the pot to medium/medium-high, uncover, and reduce the liquid until thick. Stir often to prevent burning.
4. Return the meat to the liquid in the pan. Warm both thoroughly. Add salt and pepper to taste.

30 November 2008

Pumpkin Pie

I fully realize that talking about a Thanksgiving recipe the weekend after the grand feast is a bit like predicting Superbowl scores the week after the big game. By now, you've all eaten your turkey and cranberry sandwiches, made turkey soup, and had that leftover slice of pie for breakfast. But if you'll allow me some culinary Monday morning quaterbacking, I think we'll all be Thankful, both this year and next.

You see, a few years ago I found the pecan pie of my dreams, the pecan pie that is requisite at every Thanksgiving henceforth. But that requisite pumpkin pie, well, I just never liked it. The last two years I made a pumpkin cheesecake, but this year I thought I'd give the pumpkin pie a try again. Adapted from Cook's Illustrated recipe, the filling is smooth to the point of creamy, light and just subtly spiced. The only problem was, the filling made enough for two pies. Not one to let things go to waste, I quickly made another crust, this one made of crushed gingersnaps, and baked a second pie.

It was the buttery crumbly gingersnap crust paired with the creamy not-too-sweet pumpkin that won me over. And apparently several other people at dinner, because there was only one sliver left. I may still go for the pecan pie first, but I'll no longer look at pumpkin pie with such skepticism. In fact I'll be saving room, if not for a sliver after dinner, than a good slice, cold from the fridge, the next day for breakfast.

Pumpkin Pie
Make sure to cook the mixture down until it's nice thick, otherwise your pie will risk being soft set. The original recipe had you press the filling through sieve for ultimate smoothness, but I found a blender did the trick just fine.

1 gingersnap crust or crust of choice, prepared and par-baked (see below)

1 cup of half and half
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup pumpkin puree (canned or better yet homemade)
1 cup drained candied yams from 15-ounce can (pack the yams into the measuring cup)
6 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon table salt

1. Preheat oven to 400 F. Whisk cream, milk, eggs, and vanilla together in medium bowl. Combine pumpkin puree, yams, sugar, maple syrup, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt in large heavy-bottomed saucepan; bring to sputtering simmer over medium heat, 5 to 7 minutes. Continue to simmer pumpkin mixture, stirring constantly and mashing yams against sides of pot, until thick and shiny, 10 to 15 minutes.

2. Remove pan from heat. Whisk in cream mixture until fully incorporated. Pour the mixture into blender in batches and blend until smooth. Re-whisk mixture and transfer to warm pre-baked pie shell. Return pie plate with baking sheet to oven and bake pie for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 300 degrees. Continue baking until edges are set 30 to 35 minutes longer. Transfer pie to wire rack and cool to room temperature, 2 to 3 hours. (The pie finishes cooking with resident heat; to ensure the filling sets, cool it at room temperature and not in the refrigerator.)

For the crust: Process in a food processor 1 box (16 oz) gingersnap cookies until they are fine crumbs. Slowly drizzle in 1 stick of melted butter, pulsing to combine. Press the mixture into a pie pan. Par-bake at 400 degrees for 5-7 minutes. Set aside.

23 November 2008

Pan-Roasted Brussels Sprouts

I have a problem. I really like brussels sprouts. I happily eat them, and them alone, for dinner. I like them a multitude of ways, finely shredded and sauteed, braised with bacon, roasted in the oven, even just plain boiled (!). In the winter I eat them so often it's become a household joke. I get excited when I see them in the markets for the first time in the fall, and sad when they disappear in the spring (no matter how much I love brussels sprouts, I'm an avowed seasonal eater).

Poor sprouts, they're so maligned. My friend hates them because her mother always referred to them as "little brains." Bitter when not properly handled and terribly mushy when overcooked, it's easy to go wrong with brussels sprouts. But when right, they are oh-so-good. The best brussels sprouts I've ever had are the teeny-tiny baby ones they sell at Citarella in New York, each one the size of a coin, you can roast them whole and they are almost sweetly vegetal.

That taught me a good lesson about brussels sprouts, pick out the small ones and halve or quarter the larger ones so that they cook quickly without being bitter or over-cooked. My favorite way to cook brussels is to pan roast them: start on the stove-top and then finish them in the oven. These will be on our Thanksgiving table and if they aren't on yours, you've got a long season left to find a time for them.

Pan-Roasted Brussel Sprouts
By all means, saute a little bacon along with the shallot if you want to gild the lily. The brussels sprouts should be just tender in their centers when done (check with a knife tip), and I actually like it when some of the outer edges are crispy deep-brown-black crunchy savory perfection (the above picture, while they were delicious, weren't quite brown enough for my taste).

1 shallot, chopped
2 tablespoons vinegar or lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon (a sprinkling) of sugar
a medium bag of brussels sprouts, larger ones halved or quartered
salt and pepper to taste

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. In a large oven-proof skillet, heat a splash of olive oil. Add the shallot and cook until soft and translucent. Add the brussels sprouts and saute until the begin to brown on the edges - golden brown is good, but not completely done. Deglaze the pan with the vinegar, scraping up any brown bits, and sprinkle the sugar over, stirring so it melts. Season with salt
2. Transfer the pan to the oven to finish cooking. Check after 5-7 minutes, shaking the pan. Continue roasting, stirring every five minutes, until the brussels sprouts are cooked through and the edges are well browned (some of the stray leaves may blacken, that's totally fine). Check for seasoning, serve.

15 November 2008

Lamb Meatballs in Prune and Apricot Sauce

When you cook in a certain cuisine for a long time, as I have with Middle Eastern food, you become comfortable enough with the repertoire of ingredients to sort of wing it in the kitchen. Which is why I come up with a lot of pseudo-Middle Eastern based on what I have in my pantry and a little bit of inspiration. The problem you confront then is the authenticity police. You know them- the ones that tell you your beans have to be cooked in a clay pot made by Berbers in the southeast corner of Morocco? They come after you in the night with their AOC labels and argan oils and recipes on papyrus?

Me, I think if it tastes good I'm all for it. I'm all about putting the proper labels on things (please don't call it hummus if it's not made with chickpeas), but really, experimentation in the pursuit of good food is what makes cooking fun. I am however, a little trepidatious when sharing recipes here that are of the pseudo-variety. I don't want to confront the authenticity police.

But then there are recipes so good that (1) it would be a shame not share them and (2) if they're that good, someone's probably done this before, which means it must be traditional somewhere. Like these lamb meatballs stewed in a prune apricot sauce (inspired by many a Moroccan tagine recipe)- it's so good I really shouldn't be keeping it from you. The lamb meatballs are richly flavorful and light at the same time and the sauce, with cinnamon and pepper and fruit, is a smoky-sweet-tart delight. Which means you should be writing down these ingredients and heading out to the store right now. Now, before the authenticity police come my way.

Lamb Meatballs in Prune and Apricot Sauce
For the vinegar I used white wine vinegar but I think any vinegar could work here- from apple cider to balsamic, you could even try white wine, lemon juice, or diluted tamarind paste to get different riffs on that tart effect. To soften the dried apricots I put them in a bowl and add very hot tap water over them to cover, prunes are usually very soft and moist already, but if yours are hard you can soften them along with the apricots. Drain before adding to the sauce.

for the lamb meatballs:
1 lb ground lamb
1/4 cups breadcrumbs
1 egg
1/4 teaspoon each cinnamon, cumin, and salt
1/8 teaspoon each allspice and Aleppo pepper
1/4 cup minced parsley

for the sauce:
2 medium-size onions, finely diced
2 tomatoes, diced
3 tablespoons vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
10 dried apricots, cut into quarters and softened in hot water for 15-30 mins
about 16 prunes, halved or quartered
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon each cumin, cloves, and allspice

1. For the meatballs: Preheat oven to 350 F. Knead together ll the ingredients until just combined. Don't overwork the mixture- you want the meatballs to stay light. Using damp hands, form into balls and place on a lightly greased baking sheet. Bake in the oven until cooked through and lightly browned, about 15 minutes.

2. For the sauce: Heat a splash of oil in a wide skillet. Add the onions and saute over medium heat until they begin to soften and caramelize slowly and turn golden in color, about 20 minutes. Deglaze the pan with the vinegar, stirring up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the tomatoes, honey, and season with the spices and salt to taste. Allow the mixture the simmer until the tomatoes are broken down and most of their liquid is evaporated. Add the apricots and prunes and simmer for another five minutes or so, until everything is soft and combined. Taste for seasoning.

3. Add the meatballs to the sauce and allow to warm through. Serve, perhaps over rice or with good crusty bread.

11 November 2008

Za'atar Flatbreads and Spiced Lamb Flatbreads

Well, this is embarrassing, isn't it? A full 6 months ago, I told you all about the Middle Eastern herb mixture za'atar, made from a special kind of thyme combined with sesame seeds. And while I meant full well to follow up with a recipe for using za'atar, well, here we are half a year later, and I'm just getting around to it. I know, I'm a terrible friend.

But here we are nonetheless, and you're going to get not just one but two recipes, to make up for lost time. Flatbreads with savory toppings (mana'eesh مناقيش) are a classic across the Middle East- they were my office's go-to take out item, and they're sold at stands on every corner and present at every buffet. Basically, the simplest pizza dough is topped with a variety of classic toppings: za'atar mixed with oil, a spicy tomato paste, a cheese-parsley mixture, spinach, and varieties made with ground beef or lamb. The types of flatbreads are so codified that they are always made the same shape: round for the zaatar and tomato ones, boat-shaped for cheese, folded turnovers for spinach.

The zenith of these flatbreads is a lamb version known as either sfiha صفيحة or lahm bi ajeen لحم بعجين (or lahmajoun). Ground lamb is seasoned with the quintessential Levantine ingredients of sweet-tart pomegranate molasses, warm cinnamon, smoky Aleppo pepper, and sprinkled with toasty pine nuts. Recipes vary slightly, you might see tamarind paste used in Aleppo, and some use fresh tomatoes while I prefer the more concentrated taste of tomato paste (which also holds true to the Armenian influences in this dish).

Mana'eesh (also manaoshe or fata'ir) are the perfect meal-on-the-go type item, but they're also really great for feeding crowds and a fun addition to a party (I like to make them at the holidays, when their red and green colors are particularly festive). You can even start with purchased pizza dough, which will make them that much easier. So I hope you'll take both these recipes as a belated peace offering, and that we can still be friends.

Manaoushe bi Za'atar and Sfiha
Za'atar Flatbreads and Spiced Lamb Flatbreads. Makes 16-24 flatbreads, depending on their size.

for the dough (can substitute purchased pizza dough):
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
pinch sugar
1 1/4 cups lukewarm water
4 cups flour
3 tablespoons olive oil

for the za'atar topping:
1 cup za'atar
1 cup olive oil

for the lamb topping (sfiha):
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 tbl tomato paste
2 tbl pomegranate molasses
1 lb ground lamb
1/2 teaspoon aleppo pepper (or sub half cayenne pepper and half paprika)
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
pine nuts, for topping

For lamb topping:
Heat a splash of olive oil in a large skillet. Saute the onions until softened and translucent. Add the tomato paste, pomegranate molasses and stir everything round so that it toasts for about a minute, then add a splash of water (about2-3 tbl) to dilute the mixture. Crumble the ground lamb into the skillet and sprinkle with aleppo pepper, cinnamon and allspice. Cook, stirring, until the lamb is browned and cooked through, 10-15 minutes. Taste for seasoning (salt is not added because of the tomato paste, but use your judgement).

For the dough:
1. In a deep bowl, combine the sugar, yeast, and warm water and allow to proof for 5-10 minutes, until foamy. Add the olive oil and gradually add the flour and salt, stirring with a wooden spoon, until a dough forms. Knead the dough in the bowl, adding flour as necessary to keep from being sticky, until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Rinse out the bowl, lightly oil, and return dough to the bowl. Allow to rise in a warm place until doubled in volume, about 1 hour.
2. Punch down the dough and divide into 16 balls (for medium sized flatbreads, you can divide into 24 balls for smaller flatbreads). Roll out each piece into a circle, let rest for 15-30 minutes, loosely covered with a towel.

Bake the breads
Preheat oven to 350F. Top the breads with desired toppings, transfer to a baking sheet. Bake for about 20 minutes (more or less, depending on the size/thickness of your breads), or until lightly golden on the edges. Do not overbake. Serve warm or at room temperature.

08 November 2008

Kale and Gruyere Panade

I don't think I've ever met a recipe using stale bread that I didn't like it. Think about it- every culture has a way of using up the perennial problem of bread past its prime- bread pudding, french toast, croutons, in Italy its strata, panzanella, and ribollita, in Spain it's gazpacho, in the Middle East pita bread turns into fetteh and fattoush, in Mexico tortillas become chips and tostados... you better stop me now before I start making spreadsheets.

But what I really like are that these are all homely in their goodness. A friend of mine went on a trip to Italy and he described, after several days of eating in Puglia's finest restaurants, telling his companion, "I just want to eat peasant food." A simple checkered tablecloth, a big bowl, a glass of house wine poured by weathered hands, I knew exactly what he meant.

A panade, a dish from Southwestern France that involves bread, onions, vegetables and cheese, layered and baked in a slow oven, is just this kind of thing. I first read about panade in a book of culinary history that compared panade to the Arabic dish fetteh- since both involve layering bread and dairy. The two dishes are completely different, but anything that can be compared to fetteh is in my mind certainly worth investigating. My first panade was reveletory- how could something so simple be so good, it's like the casserole your mother never made for you. Unless you're from Southern France, in which case I have a lot more reasons to be jealous of you. The bread softens so it becomes almost souffle-like, barely starch at all but pillows of puffy goodness infused with cheese flavor. If something can be homely and shocking at once, this is it.

There are a lot of other reasons I love panade- it doesn't use eggs, which I never seem to have on hand, and it's an endless blank canvas for experimentation. Use butternut squash, leeks, or tomatoes for the vegetable, or try blue cheese or rye bread, or infuse the broth with a variety of aromaics, the options are endless. But mainly I love panade for the simple economy of it, the pleasure of turning leftovers into something wonderful.

Kale and Gruyere Panade
Recipes for panade range from simple to complex versions where you have to fry the bread and make complicated sauces. This is one of the simplest versions, which I think is the heart of the dish and leaves open a wide range for experimentation. Some people suggest slicing day-old panade and pan frying it, but I think leftover panade is just as good as is.

olive oil
3 medium-sized onions, sliced
1 lb kale or swiss chard, tough ribs removed and torn into pieces
10 oz stale artisan-type bread, torn into pieces (about 3 cups, loosely packed)
about 2 cups grated Gruyere cheese, or a mixture of Gruyere, Parmggiano Reggiano, or hard sheeps milk cheese
2 cups good-quality light stock or broth plus 2 cups water

1. Heat a glug of olive oil in a large, wide, deep saucepan or dutch oven. Add the onions, stirring to coat, and a pinch of salt. Cook the onions over medium heat, stirring fairly frequently, until the onions are deep-honey in color, it should take at least 25 minutes. Set aside onions.
2. Wash the kale or chard and leave the water clinging to it. In a saucepan (you can reuse the same from the onions if you'd like), place the greens and cook over medium-high heat until they are wilted and soft, about 4 minutes for chrd and slightly longer for kale. Set aside.
3. In a bowl, toss the bread with about 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil and a few pinches of salt.
4. Preheat oven to 325 F. Bring the stock/water mixture to a simmer. Layer the panade: place a layer of onions in the bottom of a casserole dish. Scatter with bread pieces, then strew some greens over top, and sprinkle with cheese. Repeat. You want at least 2-3 layers of each component, and make sure a little bit of everything (greens, onions, bread, cheese) is peaking out the top. Do not fill your casserole more than 3/4 full or it may overflow. Pour the stock into the casserole dish, it should almost fill up to the sides of the ingredients.
5. Cover the top loosely with foil. Place in the oven on a baking sheet to catch drips. Bake 1 1/4 hours, or until thick and bubbly. Uncover and bake another 10-15 minutes, until the top is browned. Let cool slightly before serving. Makes good leftovers.

05 November 2008


There's really nothing else to talk about today. I drove all the way to Baltimore to vote yesterday, after a long work day there was an accident on the road and I arrived in the dark quiet evening outside the elementary school where I grew up. I've voted absentee for as a long as I can remember, having moved around so much in my life, but I've kept my registration in Baltimore (and now that I'm in DC I still want Congressional representation).

I'll admit it, I got a little lump in my throat when I punched the button. At my mom's house for dinner, she said she got teary when she voted, and several friends said the same. I've voted before, for candidates I felt strongly and not-strongly about, but I think the difference this time was that it felt right. That it wasn't the thing I was supposed to do but that it was the right thing to do.

My mother cooked, in anticipation of change, 9 pounds of prime rib. Nine pounds of the most gloriously marbleized richly flavorful meat I've ever had, with mashed potatoes and green beans that we cooked in the pan juices. Tonight there will be champagne to celebrate and leftovers to savor. Cheers!

Kir Royale
In our house, this is the only way to truly celebrate. It was probably the first cocktail I ever knew, and continues to be one of my favorites. I like a plain kir (made with white wine instead of champagne) just as much.

5 parts champagne
1 part creme de cassis

Pour creme de cassis into champagne flutes. Top with champagne. Serve.

02 November 2008


texture study 1
LEFTOVER SUPPER. A bit of cold lamb leftover from Saturday's dinner, a sliver of chicken from Sunday's midday feast, a touch of string bean salad leftover from the beans of noon- of such tasty remains is this supper comprised. Eating it brings the satisfaction of economy. It evidences good household management. As we grow older, I believe, we put more value on life's leftovers- on old clothes that are too good to throw away, on an old love that has settled down from hectic ardor to placid companionship, on old habits that we have inherited from a speedier moving youth. So much of life's worthwhile things are second hand anyway; each morning a second-hand sun rises on a second hand world and lights a second hand people going about their second hand work and play.

~ Richardson Wright, "The Gardener's Bed Book."

30 October 2008

Squid Ink Fettuccine with Salmon

Here's a good example of how to put your local resources to use for good economical meals. People are always commenting on my "gourmet lunches" or what I cook, and I am convinced that I spend less on groceries than most people. Yes, I make a lot of things (like beans and bread) from scratch, but I really think that knowing how to shop, knowing my local purveyors, as well as knowing how to cook, all save me money.

In this case, there's fabulous fresh pasta at Eastern Market, and I chose the excitingly black squid ink fettucine; just $4 for 1/2 lb, enough for 2 generous servings. The salmon roe I had bought for a previous brunch, but the small container was around $8. The wine I already had and the shallots and chives were from my yard, which meant we had an exquisite meal for two for what some people spend at Starbucks. And did I mention it was ready in 15 minutes, start to finish?

This dish really is special, the squid ink fettucine has a subtle taste, not fishy but rather just a little different, sort of salty and earthy. The salmon roe make this big bright pop in your mouth, and I find they have a much more subtle flavor than other kinds of caviar, so they aren't overwhelmingly salty or briny. And there's just the cool color aspect to it all, if you're looking for something black and orange for Halloween. A visual trick and economical treat.

Squid Ink Fettuccine with Salmon
If you want a richer flavor, you could add butter or heavy cream (about a 1/4 cup) after the white wine for the sauce. Personally, I like the cleaner flavor of this simple version. Letting the pasta cool slightly before adding the roe prevents the roe from bursting or loosing its pop. Serves 2.

1/2 lb squid ink fettuccine
splash of olive oil
2 shallots, finely diced
1/2 cup white wine
salmon roe
chopped chives, for garnish

1. Set a pot of lightly salted water to boil.
2. Meanwhile, in a medium-sized skillet, heat the olive oil and saute the shallots over medim heat until soft and translucent. Deglaze the pan with the white wine, scraping up any brown bits from the pan.
3. Cook the pasta in the boiling water for the time indicated (should be only 2-3 minutes). When the pasta is done, use tongs to transfer the pasta to the skillet with the shallots. Toss everything to coat (if the pasta seems dry, add a little of the pasta cooking water to loosen things up).
4. Transfer pasta to serving bowls, let cool a few minutes. Sprinkle salmon roe and chives overtop. Serve immediately.

24 October 2008

Spiced Green Tomatoes

Chances are, if you grow tomatoes, you've got a bunch of green tomatoes right now- the impending first frost sent us scurrying to clean up those tired overgrown vines. And even if you don't grow them, your local market is practically giving them away. Someone in my office brought in a bagful of green tomatoes this week and I happily helped myself. An Egyptian colleague of mine, seeing me with my handful, commented, "those will be nice when they ripen up." I looked at her like she was crazy. "I'll probably fry them," I said, "or stew them as is."

Last year, when I had a bounty of hard green tomatoes, I was doing some research into Armenian cuisine. Armenians, many of whom fled to Lebanon and Syria during the Turkish genocide, have a great influence on Levantine cuisine, and many Armenians will lay claim to dishes like lahmajun (lamb pizzas) and spiced red pepper pastes that are found in Middle Eastern cuisine. And yes, I do recipe research in my spare time just for fun. Someone help me.

Anyway, I came across a recipe for green tomatoes stewed with warm cinnamon and allspice. Now, cinnamon is traditionally used in the Levant in savory applications, but I think this recipe really works because green tomatoes are very similar in flavor profile to green apples. It's true, both are firm and slightly tart and you can even find a whole trove of "mock apple pie" recipes made with green tomatoes on the internet.

This recipe was so popular with my family last year I made it repeatedly (good thing we had all those tomatoes). You can serve the tomatoes as a sauce over whole wheat noodles, but I like the tomatoes best served on their own, chunkily stewed and placed in a bowl topped with croutons and a good sprinkling of cheese. It makes the most simple peasant-like lunch, but one that's worth finding a few green tomatoes for.

Spiced Green Tomatoes with Croutons and Cheese
The stewed green tomatoes can also be made into a sauce, in that case, you'll want to chop the tomatoes more finely or pass them through a food mill before using as sauce.

1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, smashed
about 6 firm green tomatoes, roughly chopped
2-3 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/8 teaspoon cloves
for serving: homemade croutons, cheese (I like feta or a soft goat cheese)

1. Heat a splash of olive oil in a wide deep pan or skillet. Add the onions and garlic and cook over medium heat until soft and translucent.
2. Sprinkle the sugar over and allow to melt and caramelize. Add the tomatoes, salt, and spices and bring the mixture to a simmer. Allow to simmer until tomatoes are broken down and juicy, but the sauce is still somewhat chunky. For me this takes about 20-25minutes, stirring occaisionally. Taste for seasoning.
3. Transfer stewed tomatoes to a bowl and top with croutons, then sprinkle cheese over top. Serve immediately.

20 October 2008

Apple Toffee Cake

I saw my first fall tree today. Completely orange and golden, resplendent in the late afternoon sunlight, like a beacon in a line of otherwise dull green leaves. On the next block, there was a big pile of leaves raked into a crunchy heap. I kicked them up with my sneaker, even though the adult part of me, the part that takes out the trash and sweeps my own front steps, it knows that someone worked to rake those leaves into that pile, but I couldn't resist. That dry whooshing sound. Cronch, cronch, cronch.

A friend and I went apple picking last weekend- they give you cute little hooked baskets on poles, for reaching up and garnering the apples. Big ones, tiny ones, fujis and jonagolds and galas. I bought a hunk of cheddar from my local cheese shop and had apples and cheese for lunch all week long (if I had been more industrious, I might've made an apple and cheddar pizza). And since I seemed to have barely made a dent in the apple supply, I also made an apple cake.

Adapted from a recipe I clipped from Food and Wine long ago, it includes applesauce to boost the apple flavor (and to keep the cake moist without too much oil). A buttery toffee sauce soaks the cake with extra flavor. I took this to work and it was gone before I could even snag myself a piece. Kind of like fall leaves, glowing and then gone before you know it.

Apple Toffee Cake

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
2/3 cup vegetable oil
2/3 cup applesauce
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup brown sugar
3 large eggs
2 medium Granny Smith apples—peeled, cored and cut into 1/2-inch dice
for toffee glaze:
1 stick unsalted butter
1/4 cup whole milk
1 cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter and flour a 9-inch springform tube pan. In a medium bowl, whisk the flour with the salt and baking soda. In a large bowl, whisk the oil and applesauce with the granulated and brown sugar. Whisk in the eggs one at a time. Add the dry ingredients and whisk until smooth. Fold in the diced apples with a rubber spatula. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake in the lower third of the oven for about 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Let cool slightly.
2. Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, combine the butter, milk, and brown sugar and bring to a boil over moderate heat, stirring. Remove the toffee glaze from the heat and stir in the vanilla.
3. Place the warm cake (still in its pan) on a rimmed baking sheet. Pour the hot glaze over the cake and let it seep into the cake, poking lightly with a toothpick. Let the cake cool completely, about 2 hours. Invert the cake onto a plate, and invert again onto another plate, right side up. Serve at room temperature or slightly warm.

17 October 2008

Whole Wheat Flatbread from South Lebanon (Mishtah)

South Lebanon is known as Hizballah territory, a fact that has solidified as Lebanon becomes increasingly more divided- the European bastion of Beriut's Achrafiya neighborhood, the Sunni city of Tripoli, the Christian villages in the mountains. Such a tiny country, the size of New Jersey, and so much diversity. But say "south Lebanon" to many people, especially many people in Washington, and their thoughts immediately go to paramilitary gun-toting Shiites. It's not so simple.

When I lived in Beirut my roommate was a fellow student from New York, her family hailed from Bint Jbeil, a town in South Lebanon, and a Hizballah stronghold. Her uncles would come up and bring us flats of figs, my first introduction to the fruit, her aunts took us shopping for hijabs (headscarves) in Verdun. In late July, we were invited south, for the family's annual feast day. My friend counseled me on clothing choice- longsleeves please, but no headcovering necessary; her aunts fed us non-stop while showing us how to roll tiny grape leaves (wara 'ainab), the cousins pointed out the family's orchards among the rolling hills, some pock-marked by Israeli bombs, the uncles bought the best tiny lambs on offer from a local herdsman.

So when I think about south Lebanon, yes, I think of Hizballah, of the bizarre memorial at Qana, of Nasrallah posters, but I also think about that beautiful afternoon and the rolling hills and those platters of delicious food. It's a bit more nuanced.

I've been baking a lot of bread lately, and so you'll understand why a recipe for "bread from south Lebanon" caught my eye. These are very simple whole wheat flatbreads, gently spiced with anise and sesame and mahlep (the ground pit of a sour cherry, don't worry if you don't have access to it). I've substituted cracked wheat, available in most groceries, for the jareesh, a local kind of wheat normally used. They're not pita bread, just flatbreads, but they make excellent sandwiches, especially ones spread with apple-pecan butter and muenster cheese and toasted until melting. Nuance, on a plate.

Whole Wheat Flatbread from South Lebanon (Mishtah)
Don't be tempted to make the flatbreads too thin- they're better for dunking into soup or splitting for sandwiches if they're a little thicker. Adapted from Annisa Helou. Read more about mishtah here.

1/2 cup cracked wheat, soaked in warm water for 1 hour and then drained
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/3 cup warm water
3 cups whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
3 tablespoons whole aniseseed
3 tablespoons sesame seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground mahlep, if available
1/8 teaspoon each cinnamon, allspice, cumin
3/4 cup warm water
2 tablespoons olive oil

1. Place yeast and 1/3 cup warm water in a large bowl and allow to proof, 5-10 minutes. Meanwhile, combine the flour with the salt and spices. Add the cracked wheat to the bowl with the yeast, then add the flour mixture, stir everything together. Slowly stir with a wooden spoon while adding the remaining 3/4 cup water and the olive oil, until it forms a dough. You may need more or less water, depending on your flour.
2. Turn the bread out onto a floured surface and knead for five-ten minutes, until smooth and elastic. Wipe out the bowl and grease with olive oil. Place dough in bowl, turning to coat with oil, cover wth plastic wrap and allow to rise for about 1 hour, until doubled in volume.
3. Turn out dough and divide into 6-8 pieces. Shape into balls, place on a baking sheet, cover with a damp towel and allow to rise for 30-45 minutes.
4. Preheat oven to 500F. Flatten each ball into a circle about 1/2 inch thick, place on a greased or lined baking sheet. Let rest 10 minutes. Bake 10-12 minutes, until lightly golden. Do not overbake or they will loose their suppleness. Serve warm.

14 October 2008

Thank You Christopher Columbus

Thank you Christopher Columbus for inspiring a holiday. A 3-day weekend where I'm not invited to do anything special- no obligatory Labor Day barbeque, or 4th of July fireworks, just an excuse to take an extra day. And relax. And enjoy the possibly perfect fall weather.

And go harvest grapes at a vineyard. Where I cut grapes from the vine, shaking off the lacadaisacally drunk bees, and checking for mushy overripe grapes, before adding the bunch to the basket. And then was rewarded with lunch and lasagna and plenty of wine.

And sit in my backyard with the dahlias and mums.

And eat banana cardamom pancakes.

And picnic with friends in Meridian Park, with cheap champagne and caviar sandwiches. And sit and read the entire Paris Review. And poems by Naomi Shihab Nye.

It was exactly what a day off is for.

Banana-Cardamom Pancakes
Don't be tempted to smash the bananas into the batter, these work best when the bananas are distinct within the pancakes, soft compliments to the fluffy batter.

2 large eggs
2 cups buttermilk
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon cardamom
1 cup diced bananas (2 large)

In a medium bowl, whisk together the wet ingredients (eggs, buttermilk, melted butter).
In a small bowl, mix the dry ingredients (flour, sugar, baking soda, cardamom and salt).

Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, stirring until just combined — don't worry if there are a few lumps. Stir in the bananas.

Lightly grease a large sauté pan or griddle with the nonstick spray or butter. Heat the pan until hot and then spoon out 1/4 cup of batter per pancake. Cook the pancakes until the tops look dull and a few of the bubbles pop, about 3 minutes. Turn the pancakes over and cook for another minute.