Sunday, September 27, 2009

Armico, a Sephardi chicken dish for before the fast, and what to do about the flabby skin in chicken stews

I find the day before Yom Kippur both rushed and endless, whether it is a Sunday or a workday, and the pre-fast meal to be hurried and unsatisfying. Kol Nidre hangs over you all day, and there seems to be both too much time, and not enough, especially to clean a bit after dinner before rushing out to shul. However, our sages teach that in order to get the full merit out of the fast, you must feast before, so people put a lot of effort into it. Growing up the meal was invariably boiled chicken with soup (BORING!!!). The more people went on about what a treat it was, the more you knew they were weren't enjoying it, especially because it was prepared with little or no salt, so that you wouldn't get thirsty during the fast. While boiled chicken can be good when done right (i.e. not overcooked), without salt it is hard to take. In our house, where salt is a major staple to the point that I think we eat more salt than rice, especially in this low-carb age, this would not be an acceptable "festive" meal.

So, for more years than I can remember, I have been preparing a Armico, a Sephardi dish of chicken in tomato sauce with leeks and herbs. It needs no added salt so it makes a great pre-fast meal. I originally got the recipe from a synagogue cookbook from the West coast that I lost and dearly wish I could find. The recipe has grown and changed over the years to become almost a one-dish meal chicken and vegetable stew (it only needs rice and a salad).

The main innovation I have introduced is to brown the chicken under the broiler after stewing in the style of a Filipino Adobo ( chicken stewed with garlic, black pepper, vinegar and soy sauce, definitely not recommended before a fast). This method is a great solution to the flabby-skin- on-chicken-stew problem in general. The only other acceptable solution is the Indian one, of skinning the chicken before stewing. It is a lot easier than browning the bird beforehand, which I find does little good since after stewing, the skin is pretty gross anyway. Much better to broil the cooked chicken and brown the skin, and at the same time reduce the sauce, pour it over and serve. Try this next time you make any chicken stew. Here is my recipe, which is in the pot as a write and wait to the big event this evening:

Armico (Sephardi-style chicken stew)
  1. Trim a bunch of leeks of most of the greens, split in half, and cut into 1/3 to 3/4 inch chunks. You will probably need to soak them several times in water to remove all the sand. Put in a large pot with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and saute over medium heat.
  2. Add other vegetables to the pot in the order that they are prepared, all cut into large-ish dice or smallish chunks: 3 or 4 carrots, 3 or 4 stalks celery, about 1/2 pound green beans, a zucchini or two, and 3/4 to 1 pound of washed quartered mushrooms (I like cremini here). After each addition, stir and continue to cook.
  3. Wash a bunch of flat-leaf parsley and a bunch of dill very well, dry and chop. Add to the pot, reserving a few tablespoons to use as garnish later (something which I almost always forget to do). Add one or two bay leaves.
  4. Add a 28 ounce can diced tomatoes. I like to use Muir Glen Fire Roasted Diced tomatoes. Cook a very few minutes.
  5. Add a chicken, cut into quarters or eighths. Simmer on medium-low heat for about 40 minutes until just done. (The meat and skin on the legs will be pulling away from the bones and the juices will be clear when pricked. The exact time depends on too many variables to list here.)
  6. Remove the chicken pieces to a large broiler safe serving dish, skin side up. Broil on the middle shelf of the oven on low for about 10-15 minutes until well browned.
  7. Meanwhile, boil down the sauce and vegetables on high heat, stirring frequently so that it does not burn.
  8. Pour the vegetable sauce over the chicken and serve. You can hold this warm for while before serving and do no damage.
  9. Serves 4.
Meatballs: This year, we are adding turkey meatballs. Take one pound of turkey, mix with a small grated onion, some chopped parsley, and a bit of oregano. Shape into largish meatballs (we got 8 out of the pound) and brown in nonstick skillet in a bit of olive oil. You need to firm up the meatballs so they stay together. Add to the pan with the chicken, deglazing the skillet if you want to be fancy. I am not sure what we are going to do about broiling the meatballs at the end, since this is the first year we are trying this. (Harry, our mutant carnivore, has become something of a meatball enthusiast.)
Tomatoes: The resulting dish is not all that tomatoey. If you want a redder result, add another 16 or 28 can or diced tomatoes or tomato puree.
Serving the dish at other times of year: This is great anytime, and makes a wonderful Friday night dish, and we have evened served it at a seder. By all means salt it well, and add some pepper too and garlic or a pinch of cayenne while you are at it. Even though for a pre-fast meal, it is fine without these, it is much better with.
Gmar hatimah tovah, and an easy and joyous fast to everyone.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Moroccan take on brisket

Sliced and ready to serve
(For an improved, albeit slightly more labor-intensive version of this dish, see here.)

We had this as the main dish at our Rosh Hashanah dinner. We were going to have the standard Ashkenazi variety at my mother's the next night, and wanted something a bit different. It is adapted from a chicken recipe that appeared in the NY Times in early 2008. The original recipe may be found at . I have made it with chicken and beef, and beef is definitely the winner -- it cooks longer and there is more time for the spices to meld and develop.  You can make it with stew but a fatty brisket is best I think.

Moroccan-style brisket
  1. Make a spice mixture of 1 teaspoon kosher salt, 1.5 teaspoons fine, freshly ground black pepper, 2 teaspoons ground ginger (fresh is very un-Moroccan), 1.5 teaspoons ground cinnamon, 1 teaspoon ground cumin,  1.5 teaspoons of Aleppo or Kirmiz pepper, depending on your taste.  (Once I had some spice mix from Boite of cardamom, cumin and rose and added this as well.  Not too shabby. ) 
  2. Rub all but about a teaspoon of the spice mix into about 4-5 pounds of brisket .  (See below on the cut to use.) You can leave it overnight if you want, though I generally don't.
  3. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Put 1 or 2 sliced onions in a roaster large enough to hold the meat and then some. Add 2 cloves sliced garlic, put the meat on top, and cover with 2 more sliced onions and 2 cloves sliced garlic. Sprinkle with the reserved spice mix. Add a bit more salt.
  4. Add 2 oranges, cut into eighths, about 30 pitted dates, and 6-10 carrots, peeled and cut into thirds. Tuck them in wherever they fit.
  5. Cover well (foil is ok), and put in the oven to bake for about an hour and a half.
  6. While the meat is cooking take about 1.5 pounds of merguez sausage (not the precooked kind), prick with a fork, cut into two inch lengths, and brown in a skillet.
  7. Set aside, pour out the fat, and deglaze with about 1 cup of orange juice.  A tablespoon of pomegranate molasses, if you like it, will add richness. Cook until reduced by around half.  
  8. Top the brisket with the merguez pieces, pour in the juice, cover and back for another 1.5 to 2 hours until the meat is tender.
  9. To serve, slice the meat across the grain on the bias. Place on a large deep platter and surround with dates, carrots, merguez and orange pieces. Taste the juices for salt and add a bit if necessary. If there are lots of juices and they are very thin, reduce them a bit, and pour over the meat. Garnish with a handful of toasted pine nuts.
  10. Serve with couscous to around 8 people.
This can be made in advance, but my preference is not to slice the meat until after you reheat it.

The meat:  Best for this is a nice fatty cut, like 2nd cut brisket or deckel.  I have made it with first cut brisket to my regret-- it is really too dry.  Your cardiologist will not approve, but how often do you eat brisket?  You might as well enjoy it.  If you can find beef cheeks, they would also probably work well in this recipe, though I have never cooked with them.  If it does end up dry, which may happen if you use a first cut, be particularly careful in the slicing.  Use a very long, very sharp carving knife, hold the meat down firmly with a large fork, and carve of thin (I am talking 1/8 inch here) about 20 degrees off the horizontal,  You will end up with large thin slices.  Topped with the juices, you will be able to pretend that they are not dry.

As a stew:  Use a comparable quantity of chuck cut into 1-2 inch pieces.  The ingredients are the same, but the order and cooking time are different.  Fry the sausage first and remove.  Brown the beef in the fat and remove.  Saute the onions (chopped instead of sliced) in the fat until light brown, add the garlic and saute another few minutes.   Add the spices and saute another few minutes to remove the raw aroma.  Deglaze with the orange pomegranate mixture, and return the beef and sausage to the pot.  Stir in the carrots and dates, and top with the oranges.  Bake about 2 hours until tender.  Taste about half way through for salt and add more if necessary.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Zucchini salad and the water problem

The surprise hit at our Erev Rosh Hashanah dinner was a zucchini and tomato salad. My wife generally dislikes zucchini, especially when it is boiled, and I have made a number of salads in the past that have left her completely cold. No amount of harissa, garlic and caraway in a Tunisian style zucchini salad could make up for the water that the vegetable kept exuding after it was mashed, no matter how long and how well we tried to drain it.

One of Claudia Roden's more recent cookbooks, Arabesque, contains an intriguing sounding Moroccan recipe for a salad of zucchini and tomatoes, but it called for the zucchini to be boiled and I knew that it would not go over too well. So, I adapted it with grated, salted and drained and sauteed squash: the process concentrated the flavors, kept the zucchini from oozing water, and ended being the most popular dish at the table. (It does require quite a bit of salt, which is a major staple in our house, so one of our guests was not able to eat it, but we were able to set aside some low-sodium versions of the other salads for him.) The recipe:

Moroccan Zucchini and Tomato Salad:
  1. Wash 1 to 1.5 pounds of zucchini well. (To get out the grit I use Marcella Hazan's method: soak them in water about 10 minutes, rinse, and use your fingernail to scrape off any grit that remains.)
  2. Grate the zucchini and salt well -- use about 1 teaspoon. Leave for 30 minutes to an hour to sweat. It will give off lots of water.
  3. Put the grated zucchini in a colander to drain off the salty water, rinse and drain again, and squeeze out as much moisture as you can with your hands. (Believe me, plenty of salt will still remain.)
  4. Saute the zucchini in about 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a nonstick skillet on medium heat for 10-15 minutes until tender. When almost done, add a mashed clove of garlic, cook a bit more, and set aside.
  5. Halve about 12 ounces of large cherry tomatoes.
  6. Heat 2-3 tablespoons olive oil in a nonstick or impeccably well-seasoned cast iron skillet (mine never seem to achieve the requisite impeccability of seasoning). Place the tomatoes cut side down in the skillet, and cook on medium high heat until they soften and the undersides begin to caramelize. (You have to peek).
  7. Turn down the heat to low and add 4-6 cloves of slice garlic, and saute until the garlic is cooked but not browned, which should take 5 minutes of less. Watch it carefully at this stage.
  8. Combine the zucchini and the tomato and garlic mixture, add a little pepper and taste for salt, just in case.
  9. Serve warm, at room temperature, or cold with bread. You could garnish it with chopped parsley or cilantro, but we forgot to and nobody complained. They were too busy trying to wipe every last bit of the oil out of the serving dish with their challah.
  10. Without the cilantro, which I forgot anyway, there is nothing about the flavors that would prevent you from serving it hot with pasta, perhaps with some chopped fresh basil. Try it and let me know how it turns out.
The water problem:
Just a little food for thought, which applies not only to zucchini but to other foods as well. I maintain, based on no particular scientific evidence, that many flavors are fat soluble rather than water soluble. Spices generally taste better after being sauteed in fat. And, while steamed and boiled veggies have their place, I am not always sure what it is, and there are few, that too my taste, are not better when sauteed or roasted, even using minimal low-fat cooking spray. The fat and dry heat concentrate the flavors, while the water carries them away. The sauteed grated zucchini in this recipe makes a far better side dish than steamed or boiled zucchini, no matter how much butter you put on the latter.
This works for meats as well. In general, a boiled chicken tastes less juicy than a roasted or sauteed one. I think that it is Harold McGee, in his first book, who writes that the sensation of juiciness comes when the fat (or salt or sugar) in food causes us to salivate, and not necessarily from the moisture content of the food itself.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Roasted okra

I love okra slime. I love to dump viscous sliced frozen okra into a spicy tomato sauce, cook it just a little bit, and eat it with all the goo. Eat it on top of grits. Yum.

Most people don't share my fondness for the slime (I also like the Egyptian soup melhoukia which shares okra's vicousness), and this recipe is for them. It is based on something that they used to serve at the salad bar where I used to work. Alfonso, who used to prepare dishes for the salad bar, told me his recipe, and here is my version:

Roasted Okra
  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
  2. Wash and dry about a pound of fresh okra (I use a combination of the green and the dark purple).
  3. Put the okra in a large bowl and toss it with about a tablespoon of vegetable oil, or a bit less if you are dieting. Add 1/2 to a full tablespoon of curry powder (I almost never use curry powder, as opposed to individual spices, but make an exception here), salt to taste, and about 1/2 teaspoon amchur (dried mango powder) if you have it, and toss well again until the okra is well coated.
  4. Put okra on a large, lightly greased or sprayed baking dish (I use a large jelly roll pan lined with foil to make clean up easier). If you didn't use amchur, sprinkle with juice of about 1/2 lemon. Roast between 10 and 20 minutes, depending on how tender you like it.
  5. Serve hot, warm or room temperature.

Even okra haters will love this dish. The trick for non-slimy okra is to cook it uncovered, ideally whole, and with some acid, like amchur, tamarind, or lemon. The microwave also does wonders with okra -- for some ideas here, see Julie Sanhi's Moghul Microwave. Many of her recipes are adaptable to other flavor combos.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Cabbage and marriage

One day Amy (my wife) said to me, "In case something ever happens to you, you have to teach me how to make some of the dishes that I really like." In its way, it was a kind of touching statement.

She sometimes says that she used to know how to cook, but since I monopolize the kitchen, she has lost her reason to and her skills have atrophied. This first dish she asked for was this Indian cabbage dish, so I showed her how to make it. It is not so much of a recipe as a basic method that can be varied widely based on your taste and what is at hand. I will first give you one of the ways we make it most often, then list a wide variety of ingredients that can go in at every stage, and then list two common variations. These recipes are more or less derived from Madhur Jaffrey's World of the East Vegetarian Cooking and Yamuna Devi's Lord Krishna's Kitchen, but you will find similar recipes in many Indian cookbooks.

Southern-indian style cabbage

  1. Heat sesame oil (they lighter Indian or health food style, not the dark East Asian kind) in a very large skillet, preferably nonstick.
  2. Add about 1 tablespoon of black mustard seeds and cook on medium high until they pop and turn gray. (They will and scatter around your stove like cockroach eggs.)
  3. Add about 1 teaspoon each urad dal and chana dal, and fry until they turn a few shades darker. Don't burn them.
  4. Add 1 or 2 dried red chilis and stir. These won't make it very hot, but will add a very nice flavor.
  5. Add 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon turmeric, stir, and add a small pinch of hing (asafoetida).
  6. Add about 15 fresh curry leaves if available (take them off the stem and rinse them) and a shredded serrano chili, removing the seeds if you don't want it too hot. Stir about 15 seconds.
  7. Add a small to medium head of cored and shredded cabbage. Salt lightly.
  8. Fry on medium to medium-high, stirring occasionally, until cabbage is done. It can be be green and sort of crisp, or softer and browner, depending on your taste. It usually takes 5-15 minutes, depending on factors like heat, and pan size and conductivity. You can also cover the cabbage to speed the cooking a bit. If you are using carrots, add them a bit before the cabbage is done. I usually scrape one or two directly into the pan.
  9. Add juice of 1/2 lemon, and a handful of shredded coconut (fresh, frozen, or, more likely, dried, soaked and drained). Taste for salt and correct seasoning.
  10. Garnish with chopped fresh coriander.

There are options at almost every step of the way. Experiment with the following ingredients. I would say that the only essentials are the fat, the seeds, and the fresh coriander at the end, but you may think otherwise.

Fat: ghee (clarified butter, now even available in some supermarkets), peanut or vegetable oil, sesame oil (the lighter kind, not the roasted East Asian variety) , or mustard oil.

Seeds and whole dry spices: Black mustard seed, cumin seed, panchporan (a bengali mixture of five spices: fennel, fenugreek, mustard, cumin and kalonji), fennel (I generally don't care much for fennel with cabbage), whole dried red chile, urad dal (white skinned split oblong lentil) channa dal (split chick pea). The use of dal as seasonings are typically Southern Indian. These are always added first so that they hot fat can extract their flavors.

Moist seasonings: curry leaves, sliced or diced shallots, onions or garlic, peeled and chopped or granted ginger, chopped or grated tomato, sliced or shredded fresh green chilis (seed them if you don't want them too hot). I tend to add these right after the seeds, though I may hold back on tomato until all the spices are added.

Ground dried spices: turmeric (use sparingly, no more than 1/2 teaspoon), hing (a ground sulfurous resin, use no more than a pinch), coriander, cumin, sugar. It is a good idea to put in turmeric and hing before you put in a large quantity of moist ingredients to take away their raw flavor, so I would put them in after curry leaves or chilis but before other things. If you add sugar early, in carmelizes slightly to good effect.

Other vegetables: carrots shredded into thin, noodle-like ribbons with a vegetable peeler, or green peas. If using fresh, add them to the beginning. Frozen ones should be defrosted under cold water and added toward the end just to warm them.

Finishing touches: lemon juice, fresh lemon juice, fresh grated coconut (or dried coconut soaked in boiling water or zapped until soft), chopped green coriander.

There are very few rules here, so do whatever you like. The one firm one is that you should never use hing and onion/garlic/shallots together. Hing is a sort of garlic substitute used by Vaishnava Hindus who avoid garlic, onions and their cousins. I have heard a variety of reasons for this aversion, but either use one or the other, or leave them out altogether.

Here are two classic combos to start you off:

Bengali style: Use mustard oil, heating it almost to smoking and then letting it cool a bit before reheating and adding either mustard seeds or panchporan. Use turmeric and a bit of sugar, as well as green chili and curry leaves. Finish with lemon, coconut and coriander.

Northern style: Use ghee and cumin seeds. Add red chili, and chopped onion. When the onion is soft, add some garlic, ginger, and a grated tomato if you want.

I know this is a long post, but it is really very easy, and very popular.

Nothing has happened to me, so Amy has not had to make Indian cabbage yet.