Sunday, October 31, 2010

Mexican Brisket in the Style of Syrian Jews

I am not a competitive person.  Last year, one of my birthday dinners was prepared by my friend Jay and it was the Mexican brisket recipe that I blogged on last November.  So, when they came for a birthday Shabbat dinner last Friday (his wife's birthday is the same week as mine), I had to prepare a better Mexican-style brisket.

This recipe is 100% inauthentic.  It was inspired by a broadcast in March 27, 2010 of the Splendid Table, when  Lynne Rossetto Kasper interviewed Patty Jinich about the Jewish cooking of Mexico.  Amongst other things, they discussed the happy marriage of Mexican and Jewish cooking, especially the cooking of Jews from Syria.  Mexico City has a significant Syrian Jewish community,  and I thought that it would be fun to try a brisket in this style.  So, I used tamarind, apricots and allspice, very typical of Syrian food, along with ancho and mulato chilies and other Mexican herbs and spices. The recipes in the back of my mind when I prepared this were Jennifer Abadi's Chicken with Apricots from A Fistful of Lentils, and Diane Kennedy's Pollo Enchilado from her Mexican Regional Cooking.  I don't think that cooking and serving a whole brisket is typical of either Mexican cooking or Syrian Jewish food, but it works well here and the long cooking allows the meat to absorb all the flavors. Modesty aside (blogs are not the place for modesty), it was magnificent.  Jay said that this was better than his. But then, I'm not competitive.

If anyone is actually familiar with the cooking of Mexican and/or Syrian Jews, I would love to hear your reaction. 

Mexican Brisket in the Style of Syrian Jews

  • 3-4 pound brisket, top-of-rib roast or similar cut (fatty second cut brisket is probably best -- this is soul food, not health food)
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • 6 dried chiles, a combination of ancho and mulato
  • 25 almonds with the skin on
  • 4 cloves
  • 8 black peppercorns
  • 1 stick Mexican cinnamon (see below)
  • 1 large or 2 medium onions, chopped
  • salt to taste
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/8 teaspoon oregano
  • 1/4 teaspoon thyme
  • 1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper (if unavailable, substitute a teaspoon of paprika and a pinch of cayenne)
  • 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes (I use Muir Glen fire roasted)
  • 3/4 cup tamarind paste (or substitute 1-2 tablespoons concentrate -- see below)
  • 1-2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 cup dried apricots
  • 6-8 whole medium potatoes, peeled (medium starchy rather than waxy or russet is what I used)

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Heat the oil in a large skillet or roasting pan, and brown the meat on high.  Since the shape will be irregular, it will not become uniformly brown.  Don't sweat it.
  3. Meanwhile, toast the chilies lightly on a cast iron skillet.  Snip them open with kitchen scissors and remove as many of the seeds and veins as you can.  
  4. Remove the meat from the skillet to a roasting pan or a plate, and saute the chilies in the fat remaining on medium heat.  They will become slightly crisp.  Be careful not to burn or they will become bitter. Remove to a blender.  
  5. Add the almond, cloves, peppercorns and cinnamon to the skillet and saute gently until they swell and the spices become aromatic.  Add to the blender.
  6. Add the onions to the skillet, salt lightly and saute until soft but not brown. Add the allspice, oregano, thyme and Aleppo pepper and saute a few minutes until aromatic.
  7. Add the tomatoes, tamarind, brown sugar, Worcestershire and a teaspoon of salt and simmer about 3 minutes to combine.  Taste the sauce which should be balanced between sweet, sour and salty, with the sour notes dominating since the apricots and chilies will add additional sweetness.  Correct seasonings with more tamarind, salt, brown sugar or Worcestershire to taste.  Add to the blender.
  8. Blend until well pureed.  It may take a few minutes and  need a little coaxing, but you should do OK if you work your way up from a slow to high speed.  I find that a good blender does a much better job than a food processor at breaking down the chilies and cinnamon stick.
  9. Put a little sauce on the bottom of a large flattish roasting pan.  Put the meat on top and the potatoes around.  Top with the apricots and pour the rest of the sauce over it.  Cover the dish with foil or a cover if it comes with one.
  10. Put the dish in the oven, turn the heat down to 325, and bake for 3-4 hours until the meat is very tender.  Check about an hour before done and add a bit of boiling water if the sauce looks like it is starting to scorch.
  11. Slice meat against the grain and on an angle, and  return to the sauce, and keep warm until you serve.  This is nice served with just challah and the potatoes which absorb lots of flavor from the sauce.  If you don't make it on Shabbat, corn tortillas would be very welcome.  It would also go well with rice or with sliced grilled polenta.  This quantity will serve 6 people generously.
Caution:  The sauce is delicious but dangerous to all kinds of fabrics.  It is similar to a class of moles called manchamanteles which  are made with chilies and fruit and translates literally as "table cloth stainers."  Believe it. My wife and I honeymooned in Mexico (Mexico City, Oaxaca and San Miguel D'Allende) and we ruined an article of clothing every day of our trip because of the chili sauces.  Perhaps the future of indelible inks lies in the combination of chilies and lipids.

Make ahead notes:  Unless you want to spend all day in the kitchen, this dish is best made in advance. Add a bit of boiling water before you reheat it to thin the sauce a bit and prevent scorching. Leave the meat whole.  I find that when people prepare a brisket in advance and slice it before letting it sit and reheating it, it tastes like leftovers and is a waste of effort.  You can also cook it for 2 hours the first day and another two the day you plan to serve it. However, it takes a long time for the meat to come up to cooking temperature if it has spent the night in the refrigerator.    The leftovers are great with soft corn tortillas.

Cinnamon: Mexicans are very particular about their cinnamon, which they call canela and is also known as true cinnamon or Ceylon cinnamon.  What we generally call cinnamon is actually cassia.   (Who knew?) True cinnamon is milder, sweeter, and much softer.  Cassia is harder and sharper.  Almost all ground cinnamon sold in American groceries is cassia, unless it is labeled otherwise.  If you cannot find true cinnamon, I would use 1 teaspoon of ground regular cinnamon (cassia) and add it with the other ground spices to the sauteed onions.

Tamarind:  Syrian Jews would generally use a sauce of tamarind and sugar that you prepare yourself or buy in a few stores in Brooklyn or Mexico City.  You can also use prepared tamarind paste, which is even available heckshered now, or make your own which is not that hard.  Take a block of tamarind (available in Indian and Southeast Asian groceries) about the size of an egg and put in in a container with 1 cup of water, cover and zap in the microwave for 5 minutes.  Let it sit until cool, and the press the liquid and paste though a wire strainer, leaving the seeds and other debris behind.  This doesn't take long and is rather therapeutic, and should give you the right amount for this recipe.  You can always add more Worcestershire, which is tamarind based.  A concentrate like Tamcom would be a last resort for me.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Chicken with pasta, inspired by Greece and Syria

On of the under-reported joys of parenthood is being able to eat your kids' leftovers.  It may be as simple as picking at the food that adheres to their clothing when they are done eating (only try this with very young children) or nabbing half a hot dog (if people still feed their children hot dogs) that is left on their plate.  My favorite juvenile leftover, however, is pasta.  When they were young, my kids were VERY picky eaters-- no longer, fortunately.  More than one friend has commented that this at least partially proved the existence of a just God with a sense of humor.  They ate a lot of pasta, seasoned at times with nothing more than air.  Salt and butter came later, and tomato sauce much later. Cheese is a relatively recent addition to the pasta plate, that Maya started eating in her teen years and Harry not at all with the occasional exception of mozzarella..  We call Maya the Cheeze Wizard and a substantial amount of our family's food budget when she is home goes to buying good cheese, especially parmesan.  We can go through two pounds of Parmiggiano-Reggiano a week.  We have tried to slip in some Grana Padano, but it apparently won't do.  But I digress.  To me, the best thing about my kids' pasta habit was that we would get to zap the leftover in the microwave for a few minutes, covered loosely with paper towel.  Throw in some Parmesan, mozzarella or other cheese if you kids' pasta was cheese-less. What comes out was a combination of somewhat overcooked pasta in the center, surrounded by amazing crusty pasta.  If you are the kind of person who likes picking the hard bits from the edges of a pasta casserole, and who doesn't, try this some day.  If you are this kind of person, this recipe is also for you.

Both Syrian Jews and Greeks make chicken with macaroni pasta.  I have been toying with this recipe for years, combining seasonings and methods.  There was a time when I would rub the chicken with spices, leave overnight, roast it, cook the tomato sauce in the pan juices, add the semi cooked pasta, and then toss it altogether and cook some more.  I decided that life is to short and have come up with a version that I like and that I find pretty easy to prepare.  It uses the Filipino method of stewing the chicken without browning and then broiling it after to crisp the skin.  This dish will be done minimal harm if is sits for a while in a warm oven before serving it, which makes it great for company or a Friday night dinner.

Chicken with pasta

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, and a bit more for oiling the baking dish
  • 2 cloves
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 stick cinnamon
  • 1 medium-large onion, chopped
  • salt and pepper
  • 5 or more cloves garlic, sliced or chopped
  • 28 ounce can diced tomatoes, with their juice (I like Muir Glen fire roasted)
  • 1 teaspoons ground allspice
  • 1-2 teaspoons Alleppo pepper
  • 4 pounds chicken parts (I used a chicken  cut into eights plus a few thighs, a little more or less won't hurt)
  • 1 pound tubular pasta
  • Bring several quarts of water to the boil in a large pot to cook the pasta.  Salt it well.  Meanwhile, do the rest of the recipe.
  • Heat olive oil on medium in a large 5 -6 quart pot.
  • Add cloves, bay leaves and cinnamon stick, Stir around for a few seconds and add the onion, a little salt, and cook until soft but not brown.
  • Add the garlic and cook for a minute or two.
  • Add the tomatoes and their juice, the allspice, and the Alleppo pepper.  Cook on high for about 5 minutes.
  • Add the chicken, some salt and pepper, bring the boil, turn heat down to medium-low, cover and simmer for about 40 minutes until chicken is barely done, or slightly underdone.  Remove chicken to an oven dish.
  • Meanwhile, cook the pasta in boiling water for no more than 2-3 minutes.  Drain, run under cold water to stop the cooking, and drain well.
  • Broil the chicken, skin-side up, until the skin is crisp but not too brown, because it will cook more later. 
  • Set oven temperature to 425.
  • While the chicken is broiling, add pasta to the sauce in the pot, and cook on high heat for about 5 minutes.  The past should still be very al dente.  
  • Spray or lightly oil a large, fairly shallow bake and serve dish. A shallower dish will give you crustier pasta.  Pour in the pasta and bake in the oven about 20 minutes.
  • Put the chicken on top, skin side up, and bake another 10-20 minutes until cooked through.  If you want, brown the chicken a bit more at the end to crisp and get the pasta crusty.
Cooking the pasta:  If I really had the courage of my convictions, I would skip the preliminary boiling of the pasta and just cook it in the tomato sauce before baking it.  There should be enough liquid since the chicken, onions and tomatoes give off a lot of juice.  This would make it easier to keep the pasta al dente.  However, there is nothing wrong with a casserole where the pasta is slightly soft in the center and crusty around the edges.  If you do try this without pre-boiling the pasta before I do, post a comment to let everyone know how it turns out.

Leftovers:  One one level, this is what the dish is all about. To make it easier to reheat, remove the chicken meat from the skin and bones and shred coarsely, ideally with your hands.  Oil or spray a baking dish, and add half the remaining pasta.  What sauce there is will have mostly been absorbed and the rest will be solid from the amount of gelatin. Top with the chicken, and top with the remaining pasta and spray with some oil spray.  I find that I don't care for chicken reheated in the microwave, so I would bake it about 45 minutes in a 400 degree oven, until the top is crusty.  You could also zap it if you want, but be sure not to cover it with plastic wrap or a regular cover or the pasta will get soggy.  Use paper towel or wax paper. 

Boiling water:  This should probably be the first thing that you do when you start to prepare any meal whether or not you will actually need it later..  Boiling water takes time, and you don't want to have to wait for it.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Chicken cutlets with peppers and capers

I am not really a photo person, and frequent readers of this blog (there are at least three of you I think) will know this from the paucity of photos of food that I post, in contrast to most other food blogs. Trying to photograph food makes me realize why food photography is a profession unto itself, and often involves doing things to the food that make it inedible, but pretty under the camera. The photo at left of today's dish I think provides ample evidence as to why I do this so infrequently. Amy said "It looks like lobster," which may have its merits, but isn't what I cooked.

Basically, I am a textual rather than visual person. If a picture is worth a thousand words, I would rather read the words, and it doesn't take all that long. To say that there is little visual record of my second child is an understatement, but my understanding is that this is a fate common to many second children. More out of the ordinary is that we have relatively few pictures of our first child. (She will say we actually have more of her brother but she is wrong.) So, readers will have to be satisfied with recipes, like this one, a Spanish style chicken scallopine. I made it with ground almonds left over from Pesach (which did not yet have a freezer smell) to accommodate Amy's low carb diet (I complain about it, but she looks fabulous). Here it is:

Chicken cutlets with peppers and capers

  • 1 pound thin sliced chicken cutlets
  • 1/2 cup ground almonds
  • salt
  • 1 tablespoon smoked Spanish paprika
  • oil spray
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped shallots
  • 3 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped
  • handful of finely chopped flat leaf parsley
  • 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
  • 1/4 cup chicken broth, white wine, or dry sherry (I prefer the broth; I used boxed Tabatchnick's which is acceptable in small quantities especially since it is overwhelmed by the other flavors)
  • 1/2 cup shredded or diced roasted peppers (I used jarred piquillo peppers from Spain, rinsed very well)
  • 1 tablespoon capers, small or large, rinsed

  1. Mix ground almonds, 1 teaspoon of salt, and paprika and put on a plate. Dredge chicken cutlets in the mixture as if you were breading or flouring them. (You could also defy the low-carb rule and use flour, but the almonds really taste good in this dish.)
  2. Spray a large nonstick skillet, heat on high, and add one tablespoon of olive oil.
  3. Add chicken cutlets and cook on high until browned on both sides. If not quite done, cook a bit more. (This will take between 6 and as much as 15 minutes, depending on the actually thickness of the cutlets, how cold they are, your heat sources, the conductivity of your pan, and how crowded the pan is, etc., etc., etc.)
  4. Remove chicken cutlets to a large serving platter when done.
  5. Add remaining tablespoon of oil to the pan and heat on high.
  6. Add shallots, sprinkle with a pinch of salt, and saute for 2 minutes.
  7. Add garlic, stir a few times, and add half the chopped parsley. Deglaze pan with the sherry vinegar and the stock or wine. Cook down until reduced a bit.
  8. Add peppers and capers and continue to reduce until there is relatively little liquid.
  9. Return cutlets to pan to warm through, and transfer back to the serving platter and top with peppers, capers, sauce and remaining parsley.
  10. Serves 4. We had it with pan roasted red kuri squash, but it would go better with a nice, crusty baguette.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Simply delicious turnips

I posted an Indian-style version of this recipe when we got salad turnips from our CSA last year. These are the small (no more than walnut-sized) tender turnips that you can either cook or eat raw. Even though I love Indian food as much as I do, there are some times when you just want a simpler flavor, so I just sauteed the turnips and their greens with butter:

Sauteed Turnips

  • 1 bunch salad turnips (the size bunch we got serves two, and had 5 turnips)
  • 1-2 teaspoons butter
  • salt and pepper

  1. Separate the turnips from their greens and cut off the coarser stems. Trim each turnip and cut into 6-8 wedges, but there is no need to peel them. Wash the greens well, by swishing them in a large bowl of water. Change the water several times if necessary until all the sand is gone. Shred the greens into 1/2 inch ribbons.
  2. Heat butter in a nonstick skillet with a cover.
  3. Add turnips and saute on medium-high heat until light brown, tossing occasionally.
  4. Season with salt and pepper, and put the greens on top of the turnips. Cover and steam on medium heat for 5 minutes.

That's it! Even Amy like them, and she is usually turnip averse.

Fakejitas #2

This is a slightly more conventional take on vegetarian fajitas, made with fake meat, than the one that I posted on Sept. 21 as Fakejitas #1. I can't necessarily decide which one I prefer. This version is made with sweet red and green peppers, with a little kick provided by ground chile chipotle. What may make it unauthentic (are any fajitas unauthentic, let alone those made with soy strips or seitan?) is the use of a tomato-ey sauce, but I find that this is necessary when you don't use real meat. Also, I always serve these with corn tortillas, rather than flour, which would be more authentic for a Northern Mexican or Tex-Mex dish, because they are healthier (lower in fat and higher in calcium) and taste better besides. Heat them up any way you want, but preferably directly over a flame as I direct in Fakejitas #1.

Fakejitas #2

  • Oil spray
  • 1-2 tablespoons vegetable oil (peanut, corn or canola work well)
  • 2 medium or one large white or yellow onion, cut into wedges
  • salt
  • 1 large sweet green pepper, seeded and cut into strips
  • 1 large sweet red pepper, seeded and cut into strips
  • 6-8 cloves of garlic, slices
  • 8 -12 ounces fake meat strips (chicken or beef flavored seitan, or fake steak soy strips like Morningstar farms meal starter or Lightlife steak strips)
  • 1 teaspoon - 1 tablespoon Bragg's aminos
  • 1 teaspoon to one tablespoon olive oil
  • 28 ounce can diced tomatoes, or whole tomatoes diced, save juice (Muir Glen fire-roasted tomatoes will add a nice smokey flavor)
  • 1 teaspoon ground chili chipotle
To serve
  • Corn tortillas (about 3 or 4 per serving)
  • Sour cream
  • Salsa (see recipe below; don't even think of using jarred salsa)
  • Sliced avocado

  1. Spray a large nonstick skillet with oil spray.
  2. Heat 1 teaspoon to one tablespoon of the vegetable oil in the skillet on high, add onions, salt lighly, and stir fry until they begin to soften.
  3. Add peppers and continue to stir fry until they are cooked but not too soft. The vegetables will take 10 minutes or less total.
  4. Add 2 cloves of sliced garlic and stir fry some more. Add one teaspoon Bragg's if you are using.
  5. Remove vegetables to a serving dish.
  6. Add a bit more oil to the skillet, heat, and add the fake meat, shredding any large pieces if necessary and stir fry until seared, about 3-5 minutes.
  7. Add 2 more cloves sliced garlic, stir a bit, and add another teaspoon or two of Bragg's. Stir until absorbed and remove to the dish with the vegetables.
  8. Heat the olive oil in the skillet, add the remaining sliced garlic, saute until soft but not brown, about one minute, and add the diced tomatoes, their juice, and the chipotle. Cook on high until the sauce is thick, about 10 minutes.
  9. Return veggies and fake meat to the skillet and stir fry until combined. Taste for salt and add more if needed. It should be dry rather than soupy.
  10. Serves four with tortillas, sour cream, salsa and avocado.
An idea with leftovers: Beat about 4 eggs, mix with the leftovers, and cook in a nonstick skillet into a pancake-style omelet (actually a Spanish tortilla, but that is too confusing) with a little oil until done. Broil to cook the top.