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."